Soccer | From the Spot

J1's chaotic final stretch just business as usual

by Dan Orlowitz

The dramatic three-way race for the J. League first-division title between Yokohama F. Marinos, FC Tokyo and Kashima Antlers is shaping up to be the latest in the league’s long history of photo finishes.

Yet for avid followers of the J1, these chases are often as frustrating than they are thrilling, if only because it sometimes feels as though it’s harder to figure out which team wants to win the league than it is to predict which team will actually manage to pull it off.

One of the J. League’s most appealing aspects when compared to Europe’s “Big Four” is its parity — rarely if ever are Japanese fans treated to once-horse races similar to those of the Premier League or Bundesliga.

And even when one team jumps out to a big midseason lead — or holds onto first place for the majority of the season — there’s no guarantee they will remain there when the final whistle blows on Round 34.

Current leaders Marinos are all too familiar with the situation, having experienced it just six years ago.

After 32 rounds of the 2013 J1 season, Marinos had already spent 17 in first place, dipping no lower than fourth just before the midway point of the campaign.

With a four-point lead over Urawa Reds and five-point advantage over Sanfrecce Hiroshima, a win in either of Yokohama’s two games would have sealed its first J1 title since 2004.

A crowd of 62,632 — the biggest in J1 history — packed Nissan Stadium in anticipation of a historic championship for captain Shunsuke Nakamura, the midfield maestro who had left for Europe just before the team’s 2003 and 2004 conquests, returning to Japan in 2010. The stage was set, down to a media briefing on the traditional postgame beer showers if Marinos succeeded.

Instead, Albirex Niigata won 2-0 through goals by Kengo Kawamata and Musashi Suzuki, and Marinos’ league lead was reduced to just two over Sanfrecce, which had leapfrogged Urawa with a 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare.

Nakamura and company had one more chance in Round 34 — this time away at bitter Kanagawa Derby rivals Kawasaki Frontale. But to avid followers of the J1, it was easy to predict that things would not shake out in Yokohama’s favor.

That indeed turned out to be the case, with Kawasaki winning 1-0 at Todoroki and Sanfrecce riding Naoki Ishihara’s brace to win 2-0 at Kashima, securing Hajime Moriyasu’s men a second straight schale.

But what goes around comes around, as Hiroshima experienced last season. After Round 14, the Edion Stadium residents had a 10-point lead over Tokyo. That lead was eight points — now over Kawasaki — following Round 25.

What followed was one of the biggest collapses in J1 history, with Sanfrecce failing to win any of its remaining games and Kawasaki clinching the title in Round 32 despite a 2-1 loss at Cerezo Osaka.

Frontale isn’t the only team in recent memory to limp across the finish line — Gamba Osaka’s 2014 title came after a tepid scoreless draw at last-place Tokushima Vortis, who managed just three wins and scored 16 goals while allowing 74. That was enough to inch one point past Urawa, who took an early lead against Nagoya Grampus but gave up two late goals to lose 2-1.

The Reds certainly know all about struggling against inferior sides in a pivotal game, having lost to already relegated Yokohama FC on the last day of the 2007 season and been overtaken by Kashima as a result. The 1-0 defeat at Nissan capped a five-game winless streak that overlapped with that year’s Asian Champions League final, which Urawa won over Iran’s Sepahan.

Seemingly with not enough gas left in the tank following a 4-2 win at JEF United Chiba, the Reds drew three straight before losing 1-0 to Antlers in Saitama, allowing the Ibaraki Prefecture side to seize the first of three straight titles with an emphatic 3-0 win against Shimizu S-Pulse.

FC Tokyo can perhaps sympathize with Marinos’ 2013 form. After leading for 20 straight rounds — including much of the team’s eight-game Rugby World Cup-compelled road trip — the capital club fell briefly into second, bounced back into first, and again fell behind Yokohama on Saturday after a last-second draw against relegation-threatened Shonan Bellmare.

After throwing away its post-Round 22 lead of seven points, Tokyo is perhaps lucky to control its own destiny. Two straight wins would bring Kenta Hasegawa’s men first top-flight title, as thrilling a conclusion as could be imagined in a year that has already brought many changes for the club on and off the pitch.

If Marinos and Tokyo play each other on Dec. 7 with the title on the line, the game may even come close the J. League’s ultimate tale of last-day mayhem.

In a tale deserving of its own edition of From the Spot, five teams entered the final round of 2005 with a shot at the title, and at the end of the day Gamba stood on top as archrival Cerezo dropped from first to fifth.