Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Leading group sheds makeweights as season gets down to nitty-gritty

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The last few weeks have whittled down the list of genuine contenders for this year’s J. League title, but choosing a winner with eight games left is still far from straightforward.

Urawa Reds lead the way with a four-point cushion in first place, with Kashima Antlers moving into second one point ahead of Kawasaki Frontale and three clear of Gamba Osaka. Reds’ momentum may have been checked by a 1-0 loss to Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, but having scored 18 goals in their previous five games, Mihailo Petrovic’s men will clearly take some stopping.

Reds built the foundations of their title challenge on a defense that set a new J. League record of seven consecutive clean sheets earlier in the season, but there has been a fluency about the Saitama side in recent weeks that suggests they may have that extra something needed to go the distance.

“At the end of the game, there wasn’t one player moping about,” Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa said after Saturday’s defeat. “Everyone is saying positive things and looking ahead, and that’s definitely a good thing. We’re looking toward the next game already.”

Reds will need to return to winning ways quickly with Kashima striking a rich vein of form behind them. Antlers’ 5-0 drubbing of bottom side Tokushima Vortis on Saturday was their third win in a row, although with games against Gamba and Urawa to come in October, manager Toninho Cerezo knows nothing is settled yet.

“To win the title is something that every team aims for and to get close is a good thing,” said Cerezo. “But it’s too early to say today that we can win the title or that we’re closer to doing so.”

Frontale’s form in third place has been steady if not spectacular, although a Yoshito Okubo hat trick on his return from a two-game suspension in last week’s 3-1 win over Omiya Ardija was a reminder of his explosive ability.

Gamba — seven points off the championship pace — may ultimately have too much ground to make up to win the title, but the 2005 champions are in rampant form with wins in each of their last five games. A shot at silverware looked utterly out of the question when Gamba headed into the World Cup shutdown in the relegation zone in May, but scintillating performances since then from forwards Takashi Usami and Patric have put Kenta Hasegawa’s side firmly in the mix.

“There are times when it doesn’t work out,” Patric said of his partnership with Usami after scoring a hat trick in Gamba’s 4-1 win over Sagan Tosu on Saturday. “But today we were aware of where each other was and where the space was, and we put together some nice combinations.”

If recent weeks are anything to go by, it won’t be the last thing Usami and Patric have to say before the title race is decided.

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Things are not looking good for Shimizu S-Pulse.

After heading into the World Cup shutdown in a respectable ninth place, the wheels have well and truly fallen off the Shizuoka side’s season. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Omiya Ardija was S-Pulse’s fourth loss in a row, dropping them into the relegation zone for the first time since March, second from bottom in the table.

Only one point separates S-Pulse from Cerezo Osaka three places higher in 14th, and with a head-to-head meeting between the two coming up on Sunday, there is little margin for error.

“It’s the same for Cerezo, but of the eight games we’ve got left, we can’t afford to lose many,” said Shimizu’s Takuya Honda. “We have to be more aware of the danger we’re in. We have to knuckle down in training and do what’s required, otherwise we’ll be in trouble. It’s down to us, so we have to give it all we’ve got.”

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Winning with Jubilo Iwata was a feeling Hiroshi Nanami knew only too well during his many years as a player with the three-time champions, but Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Ehime FC was his first as manager.

Nanami took over in the Jubilo dugout last week with the former powerhouse trailing second-place Matsumoto Yamaga by eight points in the second-division table, with only nine games to try to overhaul their rivals for the second automatic promotion spot and return to the top flight after a year’s absence.

The win over Ehime, coupled with a 2-1 defeat for Matsumoto against Consadole Sapporo, may have reduced the deficit to five points, but someone of Nanami’s experience and composure is hardly about to start taking success for granted.

“Of course I’m happy, but I’m not a magic demon and it’s only one game,” said the 41-year-old, who played in over 300 league games for Jubilo and was a member of each of the club’s championship-winning teams.

“I told the players after the game in no uncertain terms that we’ve got eight games left and I don’t want to lose even one of them. It’s fine to enjoy this tonight, but I told the players that as of tomorrow I want them to start thinking only about the next game and get into that rhythm.”

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Quotable: “To be honest there is pressure, but when I score it relaxes me.”

— Man-of-the-moment Yoshinori Muto breathes a sigh of relief after scoring twice in FC Tokyo’s 4-0 win over Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday.