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Relegation fears cast long shadow over struggling sides


Staff Writer

Another weekend of mixed results has left this year’s J. League championship race as opaque as ever, but after further movement at the bottom of the table, the relegation battle is looking even harder to call.

Consadole Sapporo’s official status as dead men walking means there are only two demotion slots left to fill, and no side in the bottom half of the 18-team division is likely to rest easy until the noose has been mathematically avoided. Albirex Niigata and Gamba Osaka currently sit below the line with five games remaining, but with only eight points separating 17th-place Albirex from 11th-place Cerezo Osaka, the final picture has the potential to look radically different.

Gamba were last weekend’s big winners, beating Kawasaki Frontale 3-2 to move one point from the safety zone while Albirex and 15th-place Omiya Ardija canceled each other out with a 1-1 draw. A tally of 57 in the goals-against column illustrates precisely what has got 2005 champion Gamba into such a mess this season, but a remarkable league-high 58 scored marks them out as the joker in the pack capable of absolutely anything over the coming weeks.

Other teams are nervously looking over their shoulders, with 14th-place Vissel Kobe staying two points ahead of Ardija after a 1-1 draw with Shimizu S-Pulse that extends the Kansai club’s winless streak to seven games.

Kashima Antlers will hope their participation in the Nov. 3 Nabisco Cup final does not adversely affect their league position three points further ahead in 13th, while Kawasaki Frontale and Cerezo — one point better off on 39 — can almost see the finish line.

The highest number of points a team in the bottom three has finished with since the first division switched to its current single-league format is 37, but with so many teams operating in such a tight space, this could be the year that the 40-point mark must be breached in order to secure survival.

Whatever happens, don’t expect anyone to go down without a fight.

Urawa Reds’ title ambitions look finished after losing 3-2 to Vegalta Sendai on Saturday, but the 2006 champions have no time to feel sorry for themselves with competition for the Asian Champions League-qualifying places heating up behind them.

The top three finishers in the J. League and the winner of the Emperor’s Cup qualify for a berth in next season’s ACL, and with Saturday’s defeat loosening Urawa’s grip on third to just three points ahead of Kashiwa Reysol, Shimizu S-Pulse and Nagoya Grampus, things are beginning to get interesting.

“We have to make sure we get the results in our remaining games,” said Grampus goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki after his team’s 3-1 win over Sagan Tosu. “We have to keep looking forward and try to make up ground on the teams above us. I want to get a good feeling back in the team.”

Ventforet Kofu had already clinched promotion to the first division heading into last weekend’s fixtures, but the Yamanashi club was still determined to add a cherry on top on Sunday afternoon.

Ventforet knew they could claim their first-ever piece of silverware with the second-division title still up for grabs, and a 3-2 win over Avispa Fukuoka delivered the goods just one round of games after sealing a return to the top flight after a year’s absence.

“After we clinched promotion I thought the next game would be difficult,” said forward Genki Nagasato. “But the players wanted to win the division and there was a positive tension because of that.

“Next year the battle is to stay in J1. The remaining three games of this season will be important with that in mind.”

Quotable: “I don’t want to be left with regrets.”

— Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato steels himself for the title run-in after letting a five-point lead at the top slip away to nothing in just two games.