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J. League title race heating up as top five break away

by

Staff Writer

The 2017 title race has been wide open even by J. League standards, but with nine games remaining a definite top five is beginning to emerge.

Defending champions Kashima Antlers lead the way by six points ahead of Kawasaki Frontale and Kashiwa Reysol, with Cerezo Osaka one point further back in fourth place and Yokohama F. Marinos one more behind in fifth. The J. League is notoriously unpredictable, but with sixth-place Jubilo Iwata five points adrift of Marinos and a full 13 behind Antlers, it is becoming safe to say that this year’s champion will come from the current top five.

Clearly, Antlers will take some stopping. The eight-time champions were made to look ordinary when Frontale stopped their nine-match unbeaten run with an emphatic 3-1 win on Aug. 13, but they have since responded in typically ruthless fashion, winning their next three games without conceding a single goal.

“Before the game, we knew what areas to target and the players knew where to try to break through,” Kashima manager Go Oiwa said after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Omiya Ardija. “I think we maybe ran out of ideas a little in the final third and that’s something to try to put right in the next game. This win is a result of our players looking to exploit our opponent’s weak points.”

With Frontale and Reysol both in consistent form, Antlers cannot afford to ease up. Frontale have lost only once in their last 12 games and have given some of the league’s best performances this season, with Saturday’s 3-0 demolition of Marinos a prime example.

“We went looking for goals and we got the first one,” said Frontale manager Toru Oniki, who watched his players celebrate with Usain Bolt poses after hosting the Jamaican former sprint star at the team’s training ground earlier in the week.

“After that we had periods where we were under pressure, but we controlled the game all throughout, kept the initiative in the second half and went on to score our second and third goals. That just shows you how much we’ve grown.”

Reysol are level with Frontale on 49 points after beating Urawa Reds 2-1 on Saturday, and have recovered well from a rocky period at the start of July. Cerezo, meanwhile, have slipped slightly with three defeats in their last six games, but star player Hiroshi Kiyotake is now back in training following an injury and striker Kenyu Sugimoto took his scoring tally to 16 with a brace in Saturday’s 4-1 win over FC Tokyo.

Marinos’ challenge cannot be discounted either, but for now the initiative lies firmly with Kashima. By the end of September, the picture will be even clearer.

Consadole end 16-year jinx

Consadole Sapporo have found consistency hard to come by over the years, but the Hokkaido club may have found form at just the right time.

Consadole, who share the record for most relegations from the first division — four — with three other clubs, followed up a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai in the previous round of fixtures with a 2-1 victory over Jubilo Iwata on Saturday. Astonishingly, the result marked the first time Consadole had won two straight games in the top flight in 16 years, and lifted them six points clear of the relegation zone.

“The players showed their determination and willingness to take responsibility right throughout the match, and that’s what allowed us to come back and win,” said manager Shuhei Yomoda, who saw his team go behind to a 28th-minute Kengo Kawamata goal before Ken Tokura equalized and Reis hit an 84th-minute winner.

“We prepared for this game in lots of different ways, and the players carried that out thoroughly. We were able to do what we set out to over the 90 minutes and this game will give the players confidence. We have nine games left, and we want to concentrate on what is in front of us.”

Yoshida enjoys first victory

This summer was not a happy one for Vissel Kobe, but manager Takayuki Yoshida will be hoping that Saturday’s 2-1 win over Gamba Osaka marks a change in fortunes.

Goals from Kazuma Watanabe and Kotaro Omori allowed Yoshida, who took over on Aug. 16 when predecessor Nelsinho was fired, to finally celebrate his first win in his fifth game in charge in all competitions.

Saturday’s match was the third meeting between Vissel and Gamba in the space of 11 days following their J. League Cup quarterfinal, and Yoshida believes his players got their just reward.

“I feel more relieved than happy,” he said. “I was more happy about the way the players fought rather than the fact that we won. If you play like that, you have a far better chance of winning. To see them play like that makes me happier than anything.”

Quotable

“It’s a joy to stand on the same pitch as him.”

Consadole Sapporo’s 37-year-old midfielder Shinji Ono enjoys facing 39-year-old former Japan teammate Shunsuke Nakamura during Saturday’s 2-1 win over Jubilo Iwata.