Stranger things have happened in the J. League, but with four games of the season remaining, the title race is now almost certainly down to two teams.
Urawa Reds lead Gamba Osaka by three points going into the final stretch, with a further four-point gap beyond second place surely too much for third- and fourth-place Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale to make up. The fact that Gamba were in the relegation zone during the World Cup break shows just how quickly things can change, but the stage is now set for Reds and Gamba to reprise the rivalry that produced so many memorable title battles in the 2000s.
Certainly the momentum is with Gamba. Kenta Hasegawa’s side got back on track with a 2-1 win over FC Tokyo on Sunday, suggesting a 1-0 loss to Kashiwa Reysol in the previous round was merely a blip after an incredible run of seven straight victories.
“Today was a very important game for us,” said Hasegawa. “We lost against Kashiwa in the previous round, and in this situation where we can’t afford to lose in each game we play, we knew it would be tough to play against a solid defensive side like Tokyo. But right from the kickoff we were able to play aggressively.”
Urawa’s form is significantly less impressive, with a 1-1 draw with Antlers on Sunday meaning the league leaders have taken only five points from their last five games. Reds’ recent struggles may have revived the specter of their epic 2007 meltdown — where they squandered a seven-point lead with four games remaining to hand the title to Antlers — but the way Urawa fought back from a goal down to claim a draw on Sunday suggests the current side is made of sterner stuff.
“If you look at the whole game, I’m satisfied with the performance,” said manager Mihailo Petrovic, who also saw midfielder Marcio Richardes miss an early penalty at Kashima Stadium. “We didn’t lose our heads, didn’t panic, and we controlled the game. That’s the kind of team we’ve become. I would say we’ve taken another step toward the title.”
Gamba play Vegalta Sendai next on Sunday while Reds take on Yokohama F. Marinos a day later. But it would not be surprising if thoughts are already turning toward a head-to-head showdown at Saitama Stadium on Nov. 22 that could well decide the destination of the title.
“We still have to play Urawa, but we don’t know what will happen and we have to play Sendai before then,” said Gamba midfielder Yasuhito Endo. “We’ve cut the gap some more and that gives us confidence, but we’ve achieved nothing yet. We’ve got to keep up the pressure and keep winning.”
Recent evidence suggests Gamba are more than capable of doing just that.
Are Ventforet Kofu hitting form at just the right time?
After spending the majority of the season hovering just above the relegation zone, the Yamanashi side took a big step toward safety with a surprise 2-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Sunday.
Sho Sasaki’s 81st-minute goal handed Ventforet all three points and extended their unbeaten run to three games, sending them two points clear of the relegation places with a crucial match against fellow strugglers Cerezo Osaka next up on Sunday.
“We conceded first and that made it difficult for us, but we kept our concentration and we were at home so we were determined to get the win,” said Ventforet defender Hideomi Yamamoto. “When you concede first you’ve got no choice but to go looking for a goal, but every player did well going forward.”
After just three seasons as a J. League club, second-division Matsumoto Yamaga are about to hit the big time.
Second-place Yamaga’s 2-1 win over Kataller Toyama on Sunday extended their lead over nearest challenger Jubilo Iwata to 10 points with four games remaining, meaning a win away to Avispa Fukuoka on Saturday would seal automatic promotion to the top flight.
“We didn’t go into the game with any kind of different feeling or anything, but everyone knows that games like this are difficult,” said defender Tomoya Inukai. “So to get the win is huge.
“Our goal is getting closer, but we’ve got to where we are by taking each game as it comes. That won’t change now.”
Quotable: “I would have preferred a better-looking goal — I think it went in off my stomach — but I’m glad I could score a goal that came about through sheer persistence.”
— Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato reflects on taking his scoring tally into double figures for the 11th straight season in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Shimizu S-Pulse.