Surprises galore in the J. League

Surprises galore in the J. League

One of Japan’s leading football journalists, Sean Carroll, provides us with his mid-season report on the 2011 J. League. Sean writes mainly for Weekly Soccer Magazine and The Daily Yomiuri, but you can also read his work on the J. League and AFC websites.

Hideaki Kitajima has been a standout for Reysol

The 2011 J.League season has been anything but predictable, and summing up proceedings at the halfway stage it is a little tricky to know where to begin.

Unbeaten runs, surprise leaders and slow starts all need to be considered but, to paraphrase the Arctic Monkeys, the middle’s such a perfect place to start, so let’s do that.

Mid-table has a slightly strange look to it with Sanfrecce Hiiroshima and Kashima Antlers parked in 9th and 10th positions, respectively.

Kashima have undoubtedly been thrown off their game by the loss of form of captain Mitsuo Ogasawara (whose hometown was affected by the earthquake and tsunami, causing him to expend a lot of energy over the past three months in aiding the relief efforts), and the departure of Masahiko Inoha and failure that is (was? He’s on loan at Swiss side Neuchatel at the moment) Carlao have compounded that.

They do have two games in hand, but that doesn’t matter as even a pair of victories would only take them up to…10th. Oh.

This demonstrates the almost even split in the Japanese top-flight in 2011, and Sanfrecce – without a win in three but still just eight points off the top – represent the last of the top half teams, any of whom could realistically take the title with a good run in the second half of the season.

Kashima, cut adrift as they are, are currently the top team in the second half of the division, just two points away from the relegation zone (but with those games in hand).

At the bottom of that section is, of course, Avispa Fukuoka. Nine defeats in their first nine games saw the Kyushu side planted firmly to the bottom of the table, and while they have picked up a couple of wins and draws in recent weeks it is going to take a miracle for them to stay up.

Their first victory came against Ventforet, which technically makes Kofu the worst side in the division – which, tactically, they undoubtedly are.

I recently had a cockroach in my apartment and having successfully disposed of it I was informed by a helpful individual that where there is one there are ten behind; that is Kofu’s formation (not that I’m saying Mike Havenaar in any way resembles a cockroach).

Toshiya Miura is incapable of setting his teams up any other way and although they have unbelievably earned impressive victories against Nagoya, Kashima and Gamba, they are still the least appealing side in the division, and the sooner they (or, more to the point, he) is gone the better.

 

Avispa’s only other win has come against Omiya Ardija, a result that was doubly interesting (applying the term very loosely) as it was also Omiya’s first away defeat, after seven unbeaten games on the road.

Jun ‘mid-table mediocrity’ Suzuki has done exactly what it says on his tin, and the side’s strong away form (until the Avispa loss) has been countered by a sensational home record in which nine games have yielded no (0) wins. Half a season without a win in front of your own fans is quite an achievement, so hats off to him.

Enough of this, let’s liven up proceedings a bit with some discussion of the “Sun Kings” of Kashiwa Reysol.

As well as bringing a burst of colour into J1 Reysol have also been a breath of fresh air, and their refusal (inability?) to play any other way than all-out attack has been a joy to behold.

Whether they are dishing out or taking beatings the team is never dull, and in Jorge Wagner, Junya Tanaka and Leandro Domingues they have three of the players of the season so far.

Four defeats in their last eight games mean they now share top-spot with Yokohama F. Marinos, but rather than imploding it seems more likely that opponents have instead just sussed out how to nullify their approach. Even so, I would be very surprised if they’re not there or thereabouts when it comes to deciding the ACL places in December.

Any other year the second division champions storming the big-boys game and planting themselves at the top would be the story of the season, but after the events of March 11th Vegalta Sendai’s remarkable form has to be the highlight so far.

As the closest team to the affected area they have come to embody the spirit of all of those affected by the tragedy, and their refusal to give up and constantly defy the odds to find a late goal to salvage or secure points has been quite remarkable.

Although their unbeaten run finally came to an end at 12 matches with defeat to Shimizu – Alex Brosque, how could you? – the team is still just eight points off the top, and their performances continue to suggest that they have no intention of fading away quietly in the second half of the season.

Another team who can’t afford to let up are Yokohama F. Marinos. Kazushi Kimura’s side have been playing some fairly dire stuff of late, but they are joint-top and totting up the points thanks in no small part to some late, late goals by defender-turned-striker Kim Kun-hoan.

Quite whether they have enough to hold off the challenge of the teams around them – including reigning champions Nagoya Grampus who, after an abysmal start brought about by a catalogue of injuries, have dauntingly risen to third without anybody really noticing – is very much open to debate though.

Other teams who will also certainly be in the mix include usual suspects Gamba Osaka – who have lost top-scorer Adriano and teenage prodigy Takashi Usami, but are driven, as usual, by the imperious Yasuhito Endo, and Kawasaki Frontale – the Kate Winslet of the J.League; they rarely stand out but are always there and are generally pleasing on the eye.

The final teams who could be jostling for an ACL spot are the two Shizuoka sides, Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse.

S-Pulse lost several key players in the off-season, and sitting in sixth Afshin Ghotbi has exceeded most people’s expectations (although not his own, as he was citing the championship as his aim in March).

Jubilo, meanwhile, have been livened up no end by their “Three Yama’s” (Yamamoto, Yamada and Yamazaki), with the youngsters threatening to turn the side into something of a dark horse and drag them out of the no-man’s land they have occupied for far too long.

That bleak zone is not without a casualty though, and in Urawa Red Diamonds we undoubtedly have the underachievers of the season.

The side has, of course, not been anything like the force it should be for several years, and while they, unlike FC Tokyo last year, are without question too good to get relegated they can certainly not have any realistic expectations of anything other than a(nother) mid-table(ish) finish.

They look likely to be joined in that underwhelming locale by Cerezo Osaka – who’ve had the clichéd (but-it’s-only-a-cliché-because-it’s-true) difficult second season™ - and Albirex Niigata – who should be fine if and when Cho Young-cheol is back to fitness.

The final teams who can have hopes of nothing more lofty than survival will be Vissel Kobe (aside from their freak wins over S-Pulse and Cerezo, an average of under half-a-goal-a-game) and Montedio Yamagata (two wins, eleven goals scored – things don’t look too good, do they?).

Which just goes to show, even in seasons when surprises abound, some things never change.


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