J1 Teams Still Trying to Make a Mark
Kawasaki Frontale is the only undefeated team, after three weeks of play, but none of the presumptive favourites has really set itself apart from the pack.
As the J.League moves into a two-week international break, the high degree of parity among teams has kept the table tight, with only one team still undefeated and the majority of the teams clustered about the middle of the table, with between four and six points. As so often happens, ACL commitments have affected the performances of those teams taking part, and even teams that have fielded understrength lineups in Asian play are struggling in the domestic competition.
While the other presumptive “contenders” struggle to juggle their commitments, only Urawa Reds have managed to stay near the top of the domestic pack while also competing in Asia. As I discussed in my preseason preview of the Reds, they are the one team in Japan with enough money and a deep enough roster to manage both campaigns. Despite dropping their second J.League fixture against Jubilo Iwata, the Reds bounced back to win their next two, and are currently level with Kashima Antlers in second place. Their week match against Shonan Bellmare this week was played on Sunday, to give them an extra day to recover from a tough 2-2 draw at Guangzhou.
Bellmare have a total budget smaller than the salary of just one of Guangzhou’s high-profile Brazilian stars, but they still managed to give the Reds a tough afternoon. Urawa got goals on either side of half time from their attacking duo of Tadanari Lee and Shinzo Koroki, but despite a lot of possession, they were actually outshot by the Beach Boys of Southern Kanagawa. Bellmare have a hard-working, hard-pressing unit which is likely to trouble a lot of opposing teams this year, but unfortunately they lack a real goal-scorer. The home team held the Reds at bay for most of the first half, but Lee caught a break four minutes before half time, when his shot from the edge of the box clipped a defender and wrong-footed keeper Tomohiko Murayama. After the break, the Reds put on a brief surge of attacking pressure in hope of creating a cusion for themselves before fatigue began to affect their play. A quick sequence of one-touch passes sent Koroki into the box for a powerful right-footed finish, and the visitors were able to coast the rest of the way to victory.
While Urawa is off to nearly as strong a start as last year (when they won the First Stage), two teams that are not involved in ACL play this season have been the most impressive over the opening four weeks. Kawasaki Frontale – the only team that has not lost a match – is a point ahead of the Reds and Kashima Antlers, and these two look strong enough to race the Reds for the First Stage title. The dramatic contrast between Kashima and Kawasaki makes this a particularly interesting story, and their respective strengths and weaknesses will surely be highlighted as the Spring progresses.
Frontale provided another vivid illustration of their offensive prowess on Saturday, with a 4-0 drubbing of Ventforet Kofu. National Team coach Vahid Halilhodzic made the trip to beautiful Kose Stadium to watch the Blue Dolphins in action. Though his first priority was to get a better look at Frontale winger Yu Kobayashi, who he called up for next week’s World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan and Syria, many pundits also suspect that he was running the rule over veteran Yoshito Okubo, who recently tied the record for most goals ever scored in the J.League, and has been vocally appealing for a chance to make a late return to the Samurai Blue squad.
Those who recall Okubo’s NT career are understandably skeptical about giving him another chance. Although the 34-year-old has scored prolifically in the J.League throughout his career, he seems to handle pressure poorly. Not only has he been far less productive in front of goal for the National Team, but even at the club level he seems to go missing in the most important games. This may be one reason why he has never been a part of a title-winning club team. This week . . . sure enough . . . he responded to his biggest opportunity yet to impress Halilhodzic, by vanishing into the cool air of the Yamanashi plateau. The glory of carrying Frontale to victory fell to another former NT veteran – midfielder Kengo Nakamura.
Although Frontale won this contest comfortably, the 4-0 score line was slightly misleading, and reflected a bit of “good luck” on the visiting team’s behalf. Twice within the opening 20 minutes, the referee awarded Frontale free kicks just outside the Kofu box. In both cases the call was very “soft”, as the Kawasaki players toppled over at the slightest contact from a Ventforet defender. However, the Blue Dolphins deserve credit for making full use of the opportunities. The first free kick was curled perfectly into the top left corner by Nakamura, and the second was barely pushed around the post by keeper Kohei Kawata. From the resulting corner kick, Kotaro Moriya settled a deflection at the penalty spot and drilled it into the back strings. Kofu can be a difficult opponent for even the top clubs, when they keep the opponent from scoring and use quick counterattacks to create danger. But the Wine and Blue are not suited to chasing a two-goal deficit. Frontale coasted through the second half with Nakamura claiming another nice goal on a set play, and Yusuke Tasaka closing out the rout in the 88th minute.
Though they breezed through this week’s contest with a clean sheet, Frontale’s main shortcoming is their defense, which allowed six goals over the opening three games. Kashima Antlers are the antithesis of the Blue Dolphins – a team that controls the game extremely well and allows opposing team few chances to score. However, the Golden Herd of Ibaraki has not been able to generate much offense in the early stages of this campaign. All three of their previous matches this season ended with the same 1-0 score line, and despite dominating play they struggled to secure victories over Gamba Osaka and Sagan Tosu, then lost a tight battle with Vegalta Sendai. If the Antlers can start making better use of their dominance in possession, they will be a top challenger this year on the strength of their stingy defence.
This week the Antlers took on FC Tokyo – a team that has historically given them a lot of trouble. The Capital City Coondogs played off the back foot for most of the first half, respecting Kashima’s precise passing game, and limiting their offensive forays to quick counterattacks. The Antlers were unable to break down Tokyo’s defensive block, and the game remained scoreless at the break. In the second half, however, National Team candidate Mu Kanazaki displayed his knack for scoring opportunistic goals with quick reactions in front of net. Five minutes after the restart he made a dash for the goal mouth on a cross from the right flank, and when the ball was headed clear, he showed the presence of mind to quickly get back onside. Shuto Yamamoto collected the loose ball inside the penalty arc and fired a quick shot, which was on target but probably too weak to trouble Yota Akimoto. But Kanazaki reacted to the ball as the shot came in, thrusting out a boot and deflecting it past the keeper.
Moments later Kanazaki scored what should have been his second goal, when Akimoto was unable to find the handle on a powerful shot by Gaku Shibasaki. Again Kanazaki lunged with a boot and poked it away from the keeper and into the net. However, the referee called Kanazaki for a foul on Akimoto (incorrectly, as replays showed the keeper did not have possession), and the goal was disallowed. Nevertheless, Kanazaki would manage to complete his brace two minutes from full time, volleying home a lovely cross from Shibasaki that left keeper and defense all stranded at the near post. Kanazaki floated in through the back door and slammed it on Tokyo’s hopes.
Two foreign strikers are off to a hot start in the scoring table, though both Rafael Silva and Jay Bothroyd were ultimately frustrated in their hope of sparking their teams to victory. Jubilo Iwata were held to a 2-2 draw by Avispa Fukuoka, in a battle between two recently promoted teams, despite Bothroyd’s brace, and Rafael Silva’s Albirex Niigata also drew 2-2, with Kashiwa Reysol. Kashiwa played their first match under former Reysol defender and new head coach Takahiro Shimotaira. Milton Mendes stepped down as head coach after just three weeks, apparently unable to handle the adjustment to Japan (though Reysol’s notoriously “difficult” bureaucracy may have played a part in his decision). Both Avispa and Reysol are currently in the J.League cellar, in a three-way tie with Shonan Bellmare on two points apiece.
Elsewhere, Yokohama F. Marinos edged Sagan Tosu 2-1, Vissel Kobe beat Kansai neighbours Gamba Osaka by a similar score line. And Nagoya Grampus were also 2-1 victors over Vegalta Sendai.