JAPAN: J-League – The Story so far

Japan

The domestic game in Japan awoke from a six week slumber at the weekend with a respectable sprinkling of goals. As small pockets of fans from various clubs protested against JFA plans to consider moving to a two stage league format, normal service resumed in this enthralling basket case of a competition.

Round 14 – Sat 6th July

Front runners Omiya and Yokohama F Marinos both dropped points, drawing with Sagan Tosu and Oita Trinita respectively, allowing Urawa Reds to gain some ground at the top after their 1-0 away win at Ventforet Kofu. Reigning champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima moved up to 4th spot courtesy of Park Hyung-Jin’s sublime stoppage time free kick against FC Tokyo.

The impressive Kengo Nakamura and Yoshito Okubo fired Kawasake Frontale to a 4-2 victory over Kashima Antlers to extend their recent impressive form, while Albirex Niigata came out on top in a five goal thriller against Kashiwa Reysol.

Nagoya Grampus eccentric season continued as they halted a five game losing streak, overcoming Shimizu S-Pulse by two goals to one at the Toyota stadium.

Vegalta Sendai played out a goalless draw with newly promoted Shonan Bellmare, while an exciting match between Jubilo Iwata and Cerezo Osaka, which included a goal of supreme quality from Samurai Blue striker Maeda after a wonderful assist from captain Yamada, ended in a 2-2 draw.

The mid season hiatus, designed to accommodate the national team’s participation in the Confederations Cup, allowed players and fans the opportunity to reflect on what has been for most observers, a compelling and entertaining start to the campaign.

Standings

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Squirrels on the rise

The season has been notable for the rise to prominence of Omiya Ardija, a small club from Saitama who are more used to life at the foot of the table. Approaching the halfway point of the season Omiya are astonishingly, clear at the top, having embarked on a record breaking unbeaten run which spilled over from last season into this. With an attack spearheaded by the Slovenians Ljubijankic and Novakovic, and coached by their animated and pragmatic compatriot, Zdenko Verdenik, the Squirrels have been in pole position for the last two months. If their relatively small squad can hold off the inevitable challenge of Urawa Reds, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and perhaps even Yokohama F Marinos, it could go down as one of the unlikeliest title wins since the inception of the J League in 1993.

Goals guaranteed

J-League aficionados will point to the average goals per game column as one of the primary reasons to tune in, with 2.8 registered per game in the 2012 season, an encouraging pattern that has persisted in the opening matches of 2013. Some have been truly outstanding; youtube Cerezo Osaka 1-2 Omiya Ardija for a few of the best examples.

After a sluggish start in front of goal, Urawa Red Diamonds are the leagues top scorers, having registered 13 times in their last three matches. The emerging Genki Haraguchi, who recently won his first cap, is Reds’ leading marksman with six goals. Individually, it has been a prolific campaign for veterans Marquinhos and Sato, of Yokohama and Sanfrecce respectively, while Okubo of Kawasaki is out in front with ten strikes to his name. The promising young attacker Yoichiro Kakitani, has propelled Cerezo Osaka to sixth place in the standings with nine goals already, and has surely pushed himself to the brink of a call up to Alberto Zaccheroni’s national side with his pace, technique and eye for goal.

Lower half of the table

The youthful but eternally inconsistent Shimizu S-Pulse sit mid table after recovering from a nightmare start to the season, having shored up their defence sufficiently to allow their more progressive players to shine. The turning point seemed to arrive in Round 5 when they defeated rivals Jubilo Iwata in the Shizuoka derby despite being pinned back for large periods of the match. Jubilo, despite the impressive form of playmaker Yamada, remain mired in relegation trouble, one place above Oita, who are toiling badly following their promotion from J2, with only one win from 14 matches. Sagan Tosu, despite the best efforts of the prolific Yohei Toyoda sit just above the bottom three but will be heartened by the point acquired against Omiya Ardija at the weekend.

Kashiwa, currently in a disappointing 12th position, are Japan’s sole representative in the Asian Champions League after early exits for Urawa Reds, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai. When the competition resumes in August at the quarter final stage, they face Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia.

Samurai Blue – Room for domestic talent?

The national team’s mixed fortunes in Brazil this summer, with a squad comprising mostly overseas players, has prompted calls for the manager to utilise more of the up and coming domestic talent in preparation for the World Cup next year. However, the performance in the 4-3 defeat to Italy was by common consensus, technically outstanding, as neat interplay and swift attacking combinations drew admirers from around the world. In the end, Japan bowed out early due primarily to poor defending and it remains to be seen whether those who ply their trade in J1 will be given the opportunity to stake their claim in the East Asian Cup which begins in South Korea in two weeks time.

Aesthetically pleasing, competitive and colourful

The immaculate playing surfaces in the J League ensure the ball is generally played on the floor and many teams employ technically proficient players from back to front. The indigenous qualities of teamwork, discipline, and adherence to tactical instructions are augmented by excellent skill and awareness, best illustrated in veteran Shunsuke Nakamura and the emerging Kakitani. The scattering of Brazilians, while perhaps not of the A1 standard of those who arrived at the outset of the J League in 1993, continue to add a dash of South American flair.

For experienced observers, the triumph of a provincial club like Omiya in the race for the title would only serve to reinforce the notion that Japanese football is frankly, bonkers. There is no such thing as a certainty, evidenced by the fact that six different teams have won the title in the last eight years, one of which was a newly promoted club from the second division, Kashiwa Reysol. These wild oscillations in form and fortune have long been part of the attraction and ensure there is much to look forward to in the latter half of the J-League season.

Chris Collins

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