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Early J. League pace-setters lay down title credentials

by

Staff Writer

The J. League season is only six games old, but already the early front-runners have hinted at their championship potential with a series of convincing performances.

Kawasaki Frontale lead the way as the only unbeaten team in the division, beating Sagan Tosu 1-0 on Sunday with a 94th-minute goal from Yoshito Okubo. Frontale also had an injury-time strike to thank for salvaging a 4-4 draw with Shonan Bellmare earlier in the season, and midfielder Yusuke Tasaka sees evidence of his team’s mental fortitude in such late interventions.

“It’s vital when you’re going for the title that you can pick up three points even when you’re not playing well,” Tasaka said after Sunday’s game. “I think we’ve become a tough team to beat.”

With Okubo in goal-scoring form, Frontale will feel anything is possible. The J. League’s top scorer for the past three seasons also became J1’s all-time leading marksman when his goal on Sunday took him one clear of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Hisato Sato, and the 33-year-old is happy to take them any way they come.

“It was a great pass that came to me at pace, and even if it hit me in the face I just wanted to get something on it,” Okubo said of his late headed winner.

Kashima Antlers and Urawa Reds both trail Frontale by one point, with Antlers making an eye-catching statement of intent with a 4-1 thrashing of defending champions Sanfrecce on Sunday.

“The players really played aggressively and never dropped their concentration for the full 90 minutes,” said Antlers manager Masatada Ishii. “I think Sanfrecce are struggling physically at the moment, but I was still expecting a tough game.”

Sanfrecce are not the only team battling fatigue, with Asian Champions League commitments also catching up with Urawa in a 0-0 draw with Yokohama F. Marinos on Sunday. Reds went into the game on the back of three straight league wins, but midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi admitted that the strain of competing on two fronts is beginning to show.

“As soon as we started the second half, all of a sudden things got really tough,” said Kashiwagi. “I think it was the same for everyone.”

But with only five points separating the top nine teams, no side can afford to ease off the gas for long.

Frontale, Antlers and Reds may lead the way for now, but they know only too well that things can change quickly in the J. League.

Never too late: Ventforet Kofu defender Takuma Tsuda may be entering the twilight of his career, but the 35-year-old refuses to go quietly.

Tsuda scored in the fifth minute of Ventforet’s 3-1 win over Shonan Bellmare on Sunday to register his first-ever goal in J1, becoming the fifth-oldest player to open his top-flight account in the process.

The veteran slid into the six-yard box to meet a cross from Cristiano with his knee, then bundled the ball over the line with what looked like his groin after Bellmare goalkeeper Tando Velaphi saved his initial effort.

“It wasn’t the most beautiful goal, but it summed me up to a tee,” said Tsuda.

Up and running: The season so far has not been kind to Kashiwa Reysol, but manager Takahiro Shimotaira and his players had plenty to celebrate on Sunday.

Reysol had not picked up a single league win going into their home game against FC Tokyo, but a Junya Tanaka penalty eight minutes from time was enough to deliver the three points.

The result gave a first victory to Shimotaira, who was named manager when predecessor Milton Mendes walked out after just three games in charge, and the 44-year-old was keen to share it with everyone.

“We came into this home game without a league win, and for all the fans who have supported us, all the club staff and the academy staff, I was aware of what a win would mean,” said Shimotaira.

“This victory was huge for us and for all the fans. I’m very happy and very relieved that we could do it with more than 10,000 here tonight.”

Quotable: “I didn’t shed any tears, but inside I was crying.”

Kashima Antlers midfielder Shoma Doi enjoys scoring in his team’s 4-1 win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Sunday, in his first league start since breaking a bone in his foot last October.