Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Surprise names fly out blocks with two wins

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

A good start can be a precious commodity in the J. League, and the three teams with perfect records after two games of the new season will be satisfied with their work so far.

The identities of those teams at the top, however, may surprise neutral observers. Sanfrecce Hiroshima flirted with relegation last season, Vegalta Sendai spent most of the campaign in the lower reaches of mid-table, and Nagoya Grampus gained promotion through the playoffs after finishing a tough J2 season in third place.

Of those three, Grampus were probably considered the most likely to make a flying start. The 2010 champions may have spent a year away from the top flight following their 2016 relegation, but they turned heads by signing Brazilian World Cup striker Jo and Australian goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak over the winter and have an experienced manager at the helm in Yahiro Kazama.

“We were able to relax into our game right from the start,” Kazama said after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Jubilo Iwata, which was settled by an 8th-minute goal from Brazilian striker Gabriel Xavier. “But it’s all about a second goal. We did well to get the first goal but if we had been able to score a second, I think it would have been a different game.

“I think this game will give us invaluable experience. There will be more games where we find it difficult to score. The defense stood firm around Langerak right until the end, and that will be so important as we strive to improve.”

Sanfrecce won the title as recently as 2015, but their close shave last season suggested a team that had reached the end of its shelf life. New manager Hiroshi Jofuku could not have asked for a better start to his tenure, however, especially after coming from behind to beat Urawa Reds 2-1 away from home on Sunday.

“The players reset their mind sets at halftime and fought very well,” said Jofuku, who saw his team concede the opening goal two minutes before the break before turning the game around in the second half. “The most important thing was that we kept trying to play our football even when we were digging in and trying not to concede.”

Vegalta have finished between 12th and 14th place in each of the past five seasons, and not much better was expected of Susumu Watanabe’s side heading into the new campaign. Successive 1-0 wins over Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo have boosted confidence, however, even if the team will never win style points for its pragmatic play.

“The game was being played at their pace in the first half,” said striker Naoki Ishihara, whose 57th-minute goal was enough to claim the away win over Tokyo on Saturday. “But as long as you can keep your opponent off the scoresheet, even if you have to defend for long periods, in football you will always get a chance.”

To say it is early days is certainly something of an understatement, but Grampus, Sanfrecce and Vegalta can all reflect on a job well done so far.

Antlers end rare dry spell

Scoring goals has rarely been a problem for Kashima Antlers, but it was a barren spell in front of goal late last season that torpedoed the eight-time champions’ bid for a ninth title.

Two successive 0-0 draws when a single win would have handed Kashima the silverware last year was enough to crown Kawasaki Frontale champions, and Antlers’ goalscoring struggles continued into the new campaign with a 0-0 draw with Shimizu S-Pulse on the opening weekend.

Kashima finally ended a J. League drought that had reached 358 minutes on Saturday, however, when Mu Kanazaki turned home a Yuma Suzuki cross in the 78th minute to give Antlers a 1-0 home win over Gamba Osaka.

“I’m really pleased to get the win,” said Kanazaki, who was being watched by Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “The ball just wouldn’t go in the net but then Yuma did well at the end and we got the goal. It’s a relief.”

First win escapes V-Varen

Newly promoted teams have not always had much to shout about in recent years, so V-Varen Nagasaki will be frustrated at letting a first-ever top-flight win slip through their fingers in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Sagan Tosu.

Nagasaki, making its first-division debut this season after finishing as J2 runner-up last year, took a two-goal lead at home to Tosu, only for Hideto Takahashi to hand the visitors a lifeline with a goal in the 60th minute. Jung Seung-hyun then swooped for an 84th-minute equalizer to deny V-Varen a famous victory, even if they did manage to claim their first-ever point in J1.

“If you just look at when the goals were scored, it looks like a game where we should have taken all three points,” said Nagasaki manager Takuya Takagi, whose team opened the season with a 2-1 loss to Shonan Bellmare. “But if you take all the things we did wrong in the previous game into account, I’m glad that we were able to do better today.

“Tosu’s power started to show in the second half. I could feel the quality of their through-passes and their restarts. But we have to experience that and do whatever we can to enrich our own team. We improved today and that was the main thing.”