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J. League heavyweights make flying start to season

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Vissel Kobe may have emerged as the surprise early leader in the J. League this season, but the chasing pack behind them already has a very familiar look.

Vissel top the table on 15 points after six games, ahead of Urawa Reds on 13, Kashima Antlers on 12 and Gamba Osaka, Kawasaki Frontale and Cerezo Osaka on 11 each. Vissel are in uncharted territory having never finished any higher than seventh in their history, but the four heavyweights immediately behind them occupied the top four slots last season and boast 11 league titles between them.

Urawa, which finished first in the overall table with a record-equaling 74 points last season but still lost the championship decider to Antlers, has recovered from an opening-day loss to Yokohama F. Marinos in emphatic fashion. Last Friday’s 7-0 demolition of Vegalta Sendai gave Reds four wins and a draw from their last five games, and took their goal tally to a staggering 20.

“One thing I can say for sure is that this Urawa Reds team plays modern, complete football,” said manager Mihailo Petrovic. “In all the 11 years I’ve been working in Japan, I think this team has played the most beautiful, complete football of any team.”

Antlers may well dispute that assessment — they have, after all, won four league titles during Petrovic’s time in Japan — but the defending champions’ run of four straight wins came to an end with a 1-0 defeat to Cerezo on Saturday.

“It’s me alone who picks the team, so it’s my fault that we lost,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii, who made six changes to the team that started the previous week’s game against Omiya Ardija, with one eye on Wednesday’s Asian Champions League visit to Brisbane Roar. “We gave away the ball in midfield too often.”

Indeed, dealing with the added burden of early-season ACL fixtures has derailed many a J. League title challenge over the years, but this season’s qualifiers — Reds, Antlers, Gamba and Frontale — seem to have found a measure of consistency on the home front.

Although last weekend’s results were, on the whole, a setback for the ACL teams — Gamba lost 1-0 to Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Kawasaki Frontale needed a 93rd-minute equalizer to draw 1-1 with Ventforet Kofu — it is still rare to see all four qualifiers riding high in the J. League table at this stage of the season, and the signs look promising for an exciting title race.

“We won 7-0 today but that doesn’t mean we get seven points,” said Petrovic after Urawa’s win over Sendai. “We only get three.”

That may be true, but the league’s big guns are off to a flying start nonetheless.

Saito upstages Nakamura

All eyes were on Shunsuke Nakamura when the Jubilo Iwata midfielder lined up against former team Yokohama F. Marinos last Saturday, but it was the man who inherited his No. 10 shirt and captain’s armband that ended up stealing the show.

Manabu Saito eclipsed his illustrious former teammate with two assists as Marinos beat Jubilo 2-1 at Nissan Stadium, sending Marinos up to eighth in the table and dropping Jubilo down to 13th.

“I was brought up at this club always watching Shun-san,” said the 27-year-old Saito, who swapped shirts with Nakamura after the game. “He and the other players showed us young players the way to battle on the pitch.”

Tagawa opens Sagan account

Sagan Tosu have relied on the goals of prolific striker Yohei Toyoda for several years now, but the Kyushu side is hoping it has found an apprentice to learn at the feet of the master.

Eighteen-year-old rookie Kyosuke Tagawa became the youngest scorer in club history when he bagged the third goal in Tosu’s 3-0 win over Albirex Niigata on Saturday, and the young striker was keen to savor every last moment.

“All I was thinking about was scoring a goal, and I’m glad I was able to get one,” said Tagawa, who came on in the 81st minute. “I knew the ball was going where it did, and all I had to do was turn it in.

“I feel I’ve been able to use my speed right from the first game I played, and I tried to make use of it again today. It’s great that I got a goal today but also that the team won.”

Quotable

“It’s a bad habit.”

FC Tokyo captain Masato Morishige reflects on his team’s 2-1 defeat to Consadole Sapporo on Saturday, the second straight game that Tokyo has failed to win after taking the lead.