Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Fight for J1 survival taking toll on strugglers

by Andrew McKirdy

This year’s J. League title race has become a two-team duel between Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale, but the picture at the other end of the table is not quite so clear.

One thing, however, is certain — with four games of the season remaining, nothing short of a miracle can save Albirex Niigata from relegation. Bottom side Albirex, who have been a mainstay in the top flight since 2004, are 12 points from safety with 12 points to play for, and a goal difference of minus-36.

But predicting which two teams will join them in J2 next season is far more difficult. Omiya Ardija are currently second-bottom on 24 points, with three-time champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima also in the drop zone on 27 points. Of the teams currently occupying safe ground, Ventforet Kofu have 28 points, Shimizu S-Pulse 30, Consadole Sapporo 34 and Vegalta Sendai 36.

A late surge in form can often be enough to push a team all the way to safety, and Consadole certainly look to be hitting their stride at the right time. Saturday’s 2-1 win over FC Tokyo was the Hokkaido side’s second straight victory, and could be enough to secure back-to-back seasons in the top flight for only the second time in club history.

“After going 2-0 up, we had some difficult moments but the players put their bodies on the line and dug in until the end,” said manager Shuhei Yomoda. “We haven’t been able to win much away from home this season and we wanted to change that. We’ve got four games left but we can’t feel safe yet. We want to aim even higher.”

How Consadole’s rivals must wish they could tap into a similar vein of form. Of the bottom 10 teams in the 18-team table — Consadole excepted — only Albirex managed to claim a win in the last two rounds of games.

Sanfrecce can at least take heart from the fact that their two defeats in that period came against the title-chasing pair. A first relegation since 2007 remains a very real possibility for a Sanfrecce side that won the championship three times in a four-year span between 2012-15, however, and Hiroshima would not be the first big name to fall from grace in recent years.

“Losing 3-0 is the whole story here,” defender Kazuhiko Chiba said after Saturday’s defeat to Frontale. “I understand that people want to say it was a good game and everything, but this is the cold reality that has been held up before us and we need to accept that. Now we have a week to think about how we are going to approach the next game and get our heads straight.”

With four games remaining, it could be a long, nervous fight to the finish.

Reds let their guard down

Urawa Reds gave a remarkably composed performance to reach the Asian Champions League final with a 1-0 win over big-spending Shanghai SIPG on Oct. 18, but their defensive discipline deserted them four days later in the J. League against Gamba Osaka.

Gamba equalized three times to claim a 3-3 draw at Saitama Stadium on Sunday, leaving seventh-place Urawa nine points behind third-place Yokohama F. Marinos with four games remaining. The top three finishers qualify for next season’s ACL along with the winner of the Emperor’s Cup.

“We all showed such concentration in defense in our ACL game, so I think we all need to take a good look at why we weren’t able to defend well here tonight,” said Urawa midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi.

“It’s such a waste not to take three points from a game where we still had a chance in the league. We all need to reflect on that before our next game against Hiroshima. Even though we’ve only got a faint hope, we need to cling to it and play to win every game we have left.”

Top scorer race heating up

The league title race may be down to only two teams, but the battle for this season’s golden boot still has three genuine contenders.

Urawa Reds’ Shinzo Koroki leads the way with 20 goals, ahead of Cerezo Osaka’s Kenyu Sugimoto on 19 and Kawasaki Frontale’s Yu Kobayashi on 18.

All three players scored in last weekend’s games — with Sugimoto hitting a double — and whoever ends up winning is guaranteed to surpass last season’s tally of 19 scored by Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Peter Utaka and Vissel Kobe’s Leandro.

“It was a big target for me,” Koroki said after scoring his 20th of the season against Gamba Osaka. “I didn’t think I would be able to score so many, so be able to do it makes me happy. I’ve come this far.”

Quotable

“I’m Endo too!”

A Yokohama F. Marinos fan uses a home-made banner to show solidarity with midfielder Keita Endo after his match-winning goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Kashima Antlers.