No one who watched Sanfrecce Hiroshima barely avoid relegation last season could have imagined that they would top the J. League table after 13 games of the 2018 campaign.
But after racking up 11 wins and a draw to surpass their entire points total from last season by only the first week of May, it is clear that expectations for Hiroshi Jofuku’s side will have to be drastically revised.
“We’re only just over a third of the way through a long season, but so far the players have all come together as one team — those who have been playing and those who haven’t,” Jofuku said after Sanfrecce beat Vissel Kobe 2-0 on Sunday to re-establish an eight-point lead at the top of the table.
“Training has been really substantial and that has shown in our results. If we don’t keep this going for the remaining two-thirds of the season then we won’t have anything to show for it. Nothing has been promised to us and we are not satisfied with anything yet. I want us to keep doing the things we need to be doing right until the very last game of the season.”
Sanfrecce’s transformation this year has been nothing short of remarkable, with Brazilian striker Patric refinding the form that made him a title-winner with Gamba Osaka in 2014 and veterans such as Toshihiro Aoyama and Sho Sasaki also putting last season’s troubles firmly behind them.
Remarkably for a team that finished only one place above the relegation zone last year, Sanfrecce have only conceded five goals in 13 games — a full six less than the team with the next-best defensive record.
Much credit must go to manager Jofuku, who looked a curious choice to replace Jan Jonsson when the Swede left the club at the end of last season. Jofuku had been out of management since being fired by FC Tokyo midway through the 2016 season, but the 57-year-old appears to have had a galvanizing effect on his new team.
“At halftime, the team was really desperate to go out and get the opening goal and the manager told me to go and score it,” Thai forward Teerasil Dangda said after coming on as a halftime substitute and scoring seven minutes later in Sanfrecce’s 2-0 win over V-Varen Nagasaki on April 28.
“His words got me really fired up and I think that’s what led to the goal.”
Given that Sanfrecce won the title three times in a four-year span from 2012-2015, perhaps it should not be considered much of a surprise that the club is back on top. Much water has passed under the bridge since Hiroshima last lifted the trophy, however, and Jofuku knows that nothing can be taken for granted.
“We’re concentrating only on the next game,” he said after the win over S-Pulse. “That means concentrating hard in training, doing what we can to stay in good condition and giving our all to compete.”
Given the way they have started the season, who knows how far it could take them?
Consadole making headway
Consadole Sapporo are a club on an upward trajectory.
The Hokkaido side, which shares the record for the most relegations in J1 history with Avispa Fukuoka, Shonan Bellmare and Kyoto Sanga on four, equaled its best-ever top-flight performance by finishing 11th last season and looks set for much greater success this term.
Consadole are currently in uncharted territory, sitting third in the table behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima and FC Tokyo, having won seven games, drawn four and lost two. The club is reaping the rewards of bringing in former Sanfrecce and Urawa Reds manager Mihailo Petrovic over the offseason, and the Serbian has wasted little time in fashioning his team into a formidable unit.
“The players gave their all today and the supporters really drove us on,” Petrovic, who is now in his 13th season as a J. League manager, said after Consadole’s 2-0 win over Gamba Osaka on Saturday. “This team’s togetherness is its strong point and I appreciate that the crowd got behind us until the final whistle.”
Familiar face in Kashima
Oswaldo Oliveira has had mixed results since taking over as manager of Urawa Reds last month, but the Brazilian could have been forgiven for wanting to win last Saturday’s game away to Kashima Antlers more than any other.
Oliveira led Antlers to three J. League titles, two Emperor’s Cups and one League Cup during his gilded spell in charge of the Ibaraki club from 2007-12, but he was unable to lead Urawa to victory as a 25th-minute goal from Antlers forward Mu Kanazaki handed Kashima a 1-0 win.
“When I thought about coming to this stadium to face Kashima, I had some sleepless nights,” said the 67-year-old. “That’s the truth. But I have managed around 20 clubs in my career and I have come back to face a lot of them. It’s just a matter of time before I have to face the clubs I have managed in the past. I thought about taking up this challenge as a professional.”