September 23, 2018

September Survival

Though two of the top three teams in J1 played a head-to-head match this weekend, nearly all the attention focused on the opposite end of the table, where the battle to avoid relegation has become a quagmire that seems to suck in new victims each week. Certainly the title chase has become more clearly defined, and the stretch run is going to be exciting after all. However, that is an issue that we can come back to in a few weeks. For the time being, the real issue is whether any sort of clarity is going to develop among the roughly eight or nine teams who still face some risk of dropping into the J2 next season. This week, the picture only grew cloudier. Lets get started with a review of the week's action


1 - 2  

Gamba Osaka traveled up the Tokaido on Friday evening in search of a victory that would move them (at least temporarily) out of the relegation zone for the first time in months. Though fans of the Naniwa Nerazzuri have tried to maintain a sense of calm optimism, in light of the large number of teams that are only a point or three further uptable, the longer the team remains below the drop line, the greater the pressure is likely to become. Gamba does have a lot of young talent and a relatively positive outlook for the future. But until Tsuneyasu Miyamoto took over as head coach there was a sense that the team was trying to put off the much-needed change of generations, and paying the price. Miyamoto has not been as aggressive in pushing out the veterans as some might prefer, but despite the continuing presence of players like Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno in the starting lineup, Coach Miyamoto has been getting better contributions from players like Reo Takae, Kosuke Onose, Takahiro Ko and Kazunari Ichimi. Nevertheless, Gamba entered the week in 17th place, two points from safety.

The value of youthful energy was illustrated even before fans were able to find their seats and order their first beer. On the very first foray down the pitch, Hwang Ui-Jo fired in a cross to Onose that the young attacker fired on net with his first touch. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar at just the right angle to give it a wild backspin, and as it bounded off the ground at the far post it began to spin across the line. Defender Yugo Tatsuta tried to boot it off the line but ended up putting the ball into the roof of his own net. Twenty minutes later the visitors extended their lead when Shu Kurata dribbled around the left flank and battled through a strong challenge on the edge of the box, before poking the ball across the face of goal. Ui-Jo was in perfect position, outside the post, and was able to spin and fire a shot through the back door before the defense (and keeper Yuji Rokutan) could scramble back into position. It was an ideal start for a team that badly needs any momentum it can get.

Shimizu S-Pulse offers a good illustration of the dangers that face teams which depend too much on aging veterans to keep them competitive in J1. After several years of treading water in the deep end of the J1, S-Pulse succumbed to relegation in 2015. After rebounding to the J1 in 2017, though, the team remained dependent on aging players like Chong Tese and Yu Hasegawa for much of their goal production, and they nearly stumbled right back down the cellar stairs. This year, however, Coach Jan Jonssen has built a much younger core unit around players like Shota Kaneko, Ryohei Shirasaki and Ko Matsubara. As the first half progressed, this midfield unit slowly began to regain control over the run of play. Apart from one or two counterattacks, though, they were not able to translate ball control into many shots on goal.

In the second half, S-Pulse continued to press for a response to Gamba's two-goal lead, but while the chances steadily grew more promising, it was not until the 76th minute that they finally managed to break down the Osaka defense. Gamba had finally managed to put together a series of passes and regain their poise, probing the S-Pulse defense for one of the most extended periods of the second half and culminating in a long-distance drive by Kazuma Watanabe. S-Pulse resumed their midfield buildup but this time, before Gamba's defensive block had solidified, a one-touch pass by Shirasaki sent Koya Kitagawa off on a dash behind the defense. Kitagawa held off a challenge at his back and stroked a shot past Masaaki Higashiguchi, to cut the margin to a single goal.

This set the stage for a frantic finish, as the home crowd urged their team forward, S-Pulse players threw themselves at the Gamba goal, and the Black-and-Blue visitors desperately defended the precious three points that would move them clear of the relegation zone. Again and again the Wingheads pounded against the door in the most one-sided stretch of play of the entire contest. Time and time again, the Wingheads cut into a gap and tried their luck but each time a Gamba player lunged in to block it, or deflect it away from goal. In the end the closest the home team would come to an equaliser was Kazuya Murata's drive off the base of the right post, with two minutes left. Gamba held on, and preserved their third win in a row, boosting them temporarily out of the cellar, a point above Yokohama Marinos, Sagan Tosu and Kashiwa Reysol (all of whom play their matches on Saturday).

21 September, 2018
Nihondaira (IAI) Stadium


0 1H 2
1 2H 0


Koya Kitagawa (76') 


Own Goal (01')
Hwang Ui-Jo (25') 
  Cautions Oh Jae-Suk

 Yuji Rokutan; Yugo Tatsuta, Friere, Makoto Kakuta (Yu Hasegawa 89'), Ko Matsubara; Ryo Takeuchi (Crislan 82'), Yosuke Kawai, Shota Kaneko (Kazuya Murata 82'), Ryohei Shirasaki; Koya Kitagawa, Douglas .

 Masaaki Higashiguchi; Fabio, Genta Miura, Hiroki Fujiharu, Oh Jae-Suk; Yasuhito Endo (Takahiro Ko 85'), Shu Kurata (Toshiya Suganuma 90+3'), Yasuyuki Konno, Kosuke Onose (Koki Yonekura 82'), Hwang Ui-Jo, Kazuma Watanabe .



1 - 1  

Gamba Osaka's victory on Friday evening added a dash of spice to several of Saturday's encounters. Three teams entered the weekend level on 29 points, and thus Gamba's victory put all three in potential peril of falling into the drop zone if they failed to pick up points on Saturday. The stakes were highest at Kashiwa Hitachidai (aka "Sankyo Frontier") Stadium, where two of those teams faced off head to head. Kashiwa Reysol started the season with high hopes, and a berth in the Asian Champions League. Though ACL commitments had the usual impact on team success in the early part of the season, it has only been since the summer break that the Sun Kings have stumbled into danger territory, but three consecutive losses in their past three games put the team in difficult straits. Nozomu Kato has taken over as head coach, and his first match in charge brought a surprising shift in the lineup. Cristiano and Junya Ito, who have spend most of their Reysol career playing in the front line, were shifted to the attacking wings, and the two forward positions of Kashiwa's 4-4-2 were occupied by Michael Olunga and Yusuke Segawa -- an almost embarassingly attack-oriented unit.

Sagan Tosu, meanwhile, has been struggling for most of the season, but most expected that the summer signing of Fernando Torres (and the even more recent acquisition of Mu Kanazaki) would help stabilize the team and produce a few more goals. Unfortunately, the anticipated goal rush has yet to materialize. Torres is having a bit of trouble adjusting to the style of play in the J.League, and the sheer number of lineup changes has made it difficult for the Magenta Magpies to play well as a team. Perhaps just as importantly, the team is missing the leadership and experience of veteran wingback Yutaka Yoshida, who wore the captain's armband until an injury in early August saw him miss the team's past four matches. Yet even in their struggles, Tosu has been stingy on defense, and this might prove to be a critical benefit against the overloaded offense of Reysol.

The game got off to a fractious start, and one might expect of such a high-stakes relegation scrap. Both teams got their first real chances of the contest through free kicks, but after the early argy-bargy, the two settled down to a short passing contest aimed at establishing control of the midfield and then lobbing the ball in to the respective target men, Olunga and Torres. Reysol seemed to be better suited to this effort, whereas Sagan's best chances derived mainly from forechecking and steals in the Reysol end. In both cases this seemed to reflect the ability of Cristiano and Ito to win and maintain possession using their excellent ball skills, but their inability to turn this into dangerous shots (perhaps because they were receiving the ball deeper, and with closer marking, than they were accustomed to face as front-line players). It was clear that both teams were having trouble finding a rhythm. The first shot on net did not arrive until the 25th minute -- a glancing header by Torres from the edge of the box, which was easily gathered by Kazushige Kirihata. Bit by bit, the Reysol players began to notice the pockets of space opening up behind Olunga and Segawa, whenever Cristiano or Ito received the ball on the wing. The first really dangerous chance came just before the break, when Olunga received a pass in the post and instead of looking towards goal, turned back into this pocket of space to find Kei Koizumi, breaking forward from deep midfield. By the time Sagan's defence reacted, Koizumi had already burst through into the clear, collapsing the defensive line and laying the ball off to wingback Ryuta Koike, overlapping on the right wing. Koike centred for Segawa who just had to redirect the ball past Shuichi Gonda as he sprinted through the box. Reysol went into the locker room with a precious lead at the break.

Unfortunately, Ito seemed to suffer some sort of muscle pull or bruise and was subbed out at half time. Tosu responded with a flurry of pressure just after the break, and after several half-chances the pressure produced a corner kick that was headed inside the far post by Mu Kanazaki. This equaliser, and perhaps the loss of Ito, whose contributions in defensive support are unappreciated, opened up the flow of play and resulted in a much more open exchange of probing attacks at both ends. Fernando Torres had two opportunities for close-range headers, but missed the target both times, while at the other end Cristiano "intercepted" a pass intended for teammate Hidekazu Otani which might have put the midfielder through for a free shot on the keeper.

With 15 minutes to play, Reysol began to turn the screws, taking full command of the run of play and steadily working the ball closer and closer to goal before firing in their crosses. Tosu defended well, and were particularly good at denying either Cristiano or Olunga a free shot on net. But the tight coverage they applied to Reysol's big men allowed the Kashiwa midfield to regain possession time and again. Ten minutes from full time Kashiwa made its final substitution, bringing on Ryohei Yamasaki to add one more target in the box. Yamazaki almost scored with his first touch, when a deflected shot from Cristiano fell into his path, but Gonda made a brilliant kick save to keep the game level and ensure that both teams claimed a single point -- a result that boosts both teams above Gamba on goal difference. .

22 September, 2018
Kashiwa Stadium


1 1H 0
0 2H 1


Yusuke Segawa (40')


Mu Kanazaki (52')   
Michael Olunga Cautions  

 Kazushige Kirihata; Ryuta Koike , Daisuke Suzuki, Park Jeong-soo Toshiya Takagi; Junya Ito (Ataru Esaka 45'), Kei Koizumi, Hidekazu Otani (Ryohei Yamasaki 81'), Cristiano; Michael Olunga, Yusuke Segawa .

 Yuichi Gonda; Masato Fujita, Yuji Takahashi Joao Omari, Hiromu Mitsumaru; Hideto Takahashi (Kim Min-Hyeok 45'), Yoshiki Takahashi, Akito Fukuta; Yuji Ono Kazuki Anzai 60'), Mu Kanazaki; Fernando Torres (Yohei Toyoda 73').



1 - 2

In addition to Reysol and Sagan, the third team that faced a must-win situation on Saturday was Yokohama F. Marinos -- one of only two teams in the J.League who have never spent time in the second division, or experienced the pain of relegation. Could this be the year that the list of unrelegated teams is whittled to just one? Coach Ange Postecoglou endured a difficult introduction to Japanese football back in March and early April, but by the time the World Cup rolled around, it seemed that the Marinos had found their footing. Ange had made the long-needed change of generations and handed over responsibility to a fresh-faced group of hard-working players, and in early August they seemed to have overcome the early adjustment phase. But recent results have been more disappointing, particularly in terms of defensive performance. Though the Marinos have scored more goals than any other team in the J1, they have conceded more than any team except V.Varen Nagasaki.

The Marinos have frustrated a lot of people -- opposing teams as well as their own fans -- with a style of play that seems to place more emphasis on winning the ball in good positions and creating goals than on defensive solidity. Despite the unflattering statistics, though, their defensive performance is gradually improving as players learn to make the crucial decision of when to press the ball and when to lay off, and defend. One important detail, though, is that the team is far more successful if they can score first. When pressed to come from behind, players have a tendency to take unnecessary and costly risks. This week the visitors got a huge boost when they managed to open the scoring just 8 minutes after kickoff.

Trailing 1-0 at the break, Coach Hiroshi Nanami rolled the dice and brought on two big, fast players to try to exploit the noted weaknesses of Yokohama's defense. Kengo Kawamata replaced Koki Ogawa and Turkish international Eren Albayrak made his first J.League appearance for Tomohiko Miyazawa, adopting a very fluid front line of seven attacking players, none of whom took up a noticeably fixed position. Shunsuke Nakamura was clearly the designated driver, in the centre of the formation, but Kawamata, Eren, Okubo, Yamada and Taguchi all seemed ready to dash into the box at the slightest opportunity. Yokohama responded by trying to bottle up Nakamura, double teaming and fouling him repeatedly before he could deliver the ball. But this just created an unbroken series of set play opportunities for the Blue Budgies. While the loose formation did create opportunities for the Marinos to attack, Eren and Nasgisa Sakurauchi dropped back to create a five-man defensive line when pressed, and tis was enough to snuff out most Marinos counterattacks.

Kawamata managed to find the net on the stroke of the hour, following a Nakamura free kick, but the play was flagged offside and Yokohama's advantage remained intact. Considering the number of set plays that followed over the next ten minutes, it was perhaps a bit surprising that Jubilo finally got the equaliser from the run of play. But the combination was predictable -- Nakamura using his vision and passing skills to find an unmarked Nagisa Sakurauchi, slipping into the right corner, and Sakurauchi's cross was thundered into the net by Kawamata.

But with five minutes left the Marinos got a crucial break when Yamanaka fired a long distance shot and it took a slight deflection as it bounded towards net, eluding the keeper and slipping just inside the right post. Jubilo threw everything they had in the search for another equaliser, even reducing Yokohama to ten men when Dusan picked up his second yellow card of the contest. But this time the Marinos defense held firm, and preserved the crucial three points that kept Yokohama out of the drop zone, at least for another week.


22 September, 2018
Iwata (Yamaha) Stadium


0 1H 1
1 2H 1


Kengo Kawamata (68') 


Keita Endo (09')
Ryosuke Yamanaka (86') 
Hiroki Yamada
Nagisa Sakurauchi
Cautions Teruhito Nakagawa
Dusan Cvetinovic
Dusan Cvetinovic
  Sent off Dusan Cvetinovic

 Krysztov Kaminski; Kentaro Oi, Nagisa Sakurauchi, Shun Morishita, Shohei Takahashi; Taishi Taguchi, Shunsuke Nakamura, Tomohiko Miyazawa (Eren Albayrak 45'), Hiroki Yamada; Koki Ogawa (Kengo Kawamata 45'), Yoshito Okubo (Takuya Matsuura 82') .

 Hiroki Iikura; Ken Matsubara Thiago Martins, Dusan Cvetinovic , Ryosuke Yamanaka; Takahiro Ogihara, Yuki Otsu (Takuya Kida 67') Jun Amano (Kosuke Nakamachi 80'), Teruhito Nakagawa, Sho Ito (Hugo Vieira 45'), Keita Endo .



1 - 0  

The discussion of all thre matches described above should offer readers a pretty good picture of how closely matched the relegation battle has been this season, and how much uncertainty still prevails for any team below midtable. Over the course of the weekend Gamba Osaka, Kashiwa Reysol, Sagan Tosu and Yokohama Marinos each occupied the second automatic relegation spot, before Gamba Osaka was returned to that position at the end of Saturday. Even though V.Varen Nagasaki is a rung lower on the ladder, the gap separating them from safety remains very slim. The Mighty Ducks may be newcomers to the top flight, and the oddsmakers' favourite to drop down a level in 2019, they have certainly not given up hope. Last week's victory over Nagoya Grampus gave the team a much-needed boost of confidence, and with a victory this week they could have closed the gap with fellow strugglers to the margin of a single victory. Defense has been the critical weakness for V.Varen this season (they have conceded nearly two goals per game, on average), but the recent arrival of Dutch centre-back Jordy Buijs has helped to stem the bleeding. At the attacking end, Jamaican-Japanese striker Musashi Suzuki has been the go-to man for most of the season, but his contributions have been meagre over the summer. Last week's hat trick suggests that he may be finding his form at a crucial moment.

Both teams played tight defense, and though the hosts had slightly more of the ball, actual scoring chances were few. Midway through the second half, V.Varen responded to the importance of claiming all three points from this contest, and brought Juanma on to provide support for Suzuki in the front line. V.Varen's critical opener came with just ten minutes remaining, and was greatly assisted by contributions from Juanma. First, the big Brazilian won a free kick about 40 yards from goal as a defender tried to prevent him from pulling down a high clearance from the Nagasaki end. He then set up a post position right at the edge of the box to serve as the initial target for V.Varen's free kick. As the ball came in, Daniel Schmidt charged off his line thinking that he would be able to punch the ball clear before it reached Juanma. But the Brazilian target man used his body to screen Schmidt off from the ball. Neither player made clean contact and the ball dropped right at the edge of the box, a meter or two away. Takashi Sawada pounced, and managed to fire off a shot before a defender could get into position. Though his angle was slightly obstructed, Sawada managed to make enough contact to bloop the ball into the empty net.

Thereafter Nagasaki rode the wave of euphoria generated by their fans, and secured the victory. This moves last-place V.Varen to within three points of the other stragglers, and with two consecutive victories, the Mighty Ducks now look like they have a genuine hope of escaping the drop. At a minimum, this puts even more pressure on the other teams that sit clustered in the zone from 30 to 36 points.

22 September, 2018
Nagasaki (TransCosmo) Stadium


0 1H 0
1 2H 0


Takashi Sawada (79') 


Ryota Takasugi Cautions Takuma Abe

 Kenta Tokushige; Daichi Tagami, Jordy Buijs, Ryota Takasugi; Masato Kurogi, Yuzuru Shimada (Ryota Isomura 76'), Ryutaro Iio, Hijiri Onaga, Keita Nakamura (Juanma 72') , Takashi Sawada (Yusuke Maeda 90'); Musashi Suzuki .

 Daniel Schmidt; Yasuhiro Hiraoka, Kazuki Oiwa, Ko Itakura; Shingo Tomita (Ryan Yong-gi 81'), Hiroaki Okuno, Koji Hachisuka, Kunimitsu Sekiguchi (Yoshihiro Nakano 57'); Gakuto Notsuda, Takuma Abe (Mike Havenaar 82'), Naoki Ishihara .


    1 - 1

If this match had taken place a month ago, it might have deserved its billing as a decisive battle that could help decide the league title. However, the Capital City club has been spinning its wheels since midsummer, and at this point the prospect of a Tokyo title are all but extinguishd. Though still a critical test for the home team, the alternatives for the Coondogs at this point are whether they will allow Sanfrecce to take a step cloaser to their fourth championship or whether Tokyo will do a favour for their bitter local rivals, Kawasaki Frontale, by slowing Sanfrecce's progress towards the finish line. .

As disappointing as Tokyo's results have been over the past month, Sanfrecce's have been only marginally better. The Purple Archers went into the World Cup recess with an unprecedented cushion atop the table. Frontale certainly deserve credit for their strong run, which had pulled them to within six points of the leaders at the start of the week, but there is also a sense that Hiroshima took their foot off the gas a bit, and need to regain their early-season decisiveness if they want to remain on course for the championship.

One problem that Sanfrecce faces in the latter stages of the season stems from their very success. The football philosophy adopted by Coach Hiroshi Jofuku is based on the underlying idea that chances are created, or defused, by obtaining numerical superiority in the critical area of play. Jofuku perfected this philosophy at Ventforet Kofu, a team that played far more defensively than Hiroshima, but it is not THAT much different from the 3-6-1 strategies pioneered by Mihailo Petrovic at Hiroshima and Urawa. If you simply look at the player alignments listed on the Sanfrecce lineup card each week, you might assume that Jofuku has changed his philosophy. But while the Purple Archers play with four nominal defenders and a 2-3 midfield, in practice the responsibilities and objectives are very similar to those used in Kofu's 3-6-1 (or 5-4-1) set. Whether on offense or on defense, Sanfrecce maintains a very tight formation that is horizontal rather than vertical. Wherever the ball goes, you can expect at least six Purple jerseys to cluster around it. The goal is to win the ball in an advanced position, with several teammates in close contact, and launch a counterattack that expands from that point, stretching the opposing defense and creating dangerous shots.

The one unyielding weakness of this strategy is that regardless of which team adopts it, and how they line up, its main tactical goal is the counterattack. When you are the league leader, playing against teams much further down the table, you are not likely to get many chances to counterattack. On the contrary, the opponent is likely to sit back an force you to come at THEM. Since league play resumed in late July, Sanfrecce has been forced to play much more of their football in a "more traditional" style of gradual midfield buildup, rather than counterattacks. When the opponent remains constantly in a defensive shell, it is impossible to create the numerical advantages that Jofuku's football strives to create. The result has been much less goal production and fewer runaway victories than they enjoyed earlier in the season.

Fortunately for the home team, this week the opening goal came on a set play that illustrates one Sanfrecce strength that does not depend on strategies or tactics. The sheer physical size and power of Patric Oliveira is sometimes all that Sanfrecce needs to generate goals. A Hiroshima free kick was lobbed into the box and headed down by Sho Sasaki into a tangle of bodies writing like mudwrestlers in the mouth of goal. Patric muscled through two defenders to get the first touch, but the ball was blocked. Even as he toppled to the ground in a heap of bodies, Patric managed to throw up his foot and block an attempted Tokyo clearance, deflecting the ball right back into the net.

Of course, if you discuss the coaching career of Hiroshi Jofuku, it is impossible to ignore his two unsuccessful stints at FC Tokyo. Fans in the capital city tend to dismiss him as a pseudo-intellectual who talks a good gaggle of buzzwords and bombast but struggles to produce results. The results of Jofuku's Tokyo teams may support this claim, but more than a few J.League watchers will argue that the results are a more accurate reflection of the team he was coaching, rather than his abilities as a coach. Regardless of the position you take, you have to agree that there is no love lost between Jofuku and his former players or their fans.

Shortly after the break Tokyo managed to strike a blow against the former gaffer thanks to a bit of individual brilliance. Diego Oliveira picked up a pass on the left sideline and muscled his way along the goal line, bulled through a defensive challenge and then dropped a pass back to Lins, near the penalty spot. Lins fired through the crowd and the ball deflected past Takuto Hayashi to pull the visitors level.

Hiroshima once again found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to attack a tight, well-organised defense with patient buildup, rather than dashing forward in a wave of attack. While the balance of play remained largely in the hands of the home team, they were only able to create a few half-chances, whereas Tokyo had better success with their occasional counterstrikes. Unfortunately, as the contest moved into its final few minutes a series of inexplicable calls by the referee had both teams so perplexed that they seemed to lose focus on the football and get caught up in an exchange of cheap shots and score-settling, which left both teams looking less than impressive. Nevertheless, the contest ended on even terms, which narrows Sanfrecce's lead even further, but essentially eliminates Tokyo's hopes of climbing back into the race. The team from Tokyo now sit 13 points behind Sanfrecce and nine in back of Kawasaki Frontale, whose fortunes were much better (as we will soon relate)

22 September, 2018
Hiroshima Big Arch


1 1H 0
0 2H 1


Patrick (18') 


Lins (49')   
Yuki Nogami Cautions Diego Oliveira

Takuto Hayashi; Takuya Wada, Yuki Nogami, Hiroki Mizumoto, Sho Sasaki; Kosei Shibasaki (Shun Kawabe 76'), Toshihiro Aoyama, Sho Inagaki, Yoshifumi Kashiwa, Masato Kudo (Teerasil Dangda 61'), Patric Oliveira .

  Akihiro Hayashi; Ryoya Ogawa, Jang Hyun-Soo, Masato Morishige, Kosuke Ota; Keigo Higashi, Kento Hashimoto, Yojiro Takahagi, Sotan Tanabe (Kotaro Omori 72'); Lins (Kensuke Nagai 72'), Diego Oliveira (Takuji Yonemoto 88') .



3 - 1

In Kawasaki, the reigning champions closed the gap on Sanfrecce to just four points with a comfortable victory over Nagoya Grampus. The Red Whales had been on a successful run in the month of August, which saw them climb out of the league cellar and move clear of the relegation battle, for a week or so. But losses in their last two outings have dragged them right back into the fray. The main factor in Nagoya's success over the summer was Joao "JO" Alves Silva, who leapt into the top ranks of goalscorers with a series of hat tricks and braces. As Frontale demonstrated, though, if you can contain Nagoya's main goalscoring threat, Grampus have no other real options.

Frontale took the lead on an Own Goal just 20 minutes into the contest, and when Hiroyuki Abe blasted a 25-meter shot into the top left corner, ten minutes later, the game was all but over. Indeed, the Blue Dolphins could have (and probably should have) added one or two more goals to their tally by half time

Grampus pulled one goal back on the stroke of the hour when Jo and Takashi Kanai combined to send Naoki Maeda through on goal with a lovely exchange of passes. But Frontale restored their two-goal cushion almost immediately, as Shintaro Kurumaya overlapped all the way to the goal line, crossed for Yu Kobayashi at the top of the six-yard box, and the Frontale ace bundled the ball into net (with some possible help from a Grampus defender). The victory puts Frontale in striking distance of the league leaders, with seven matches still to play. It now looks like a two-horse race for the finish line.

22 September 2018
Todoroki Stadium


2 1H 0
1 2H 1


Own Goal (20')
Hiroyuki Abe (29') 
Yu Kobayashi (63') 


Naoki Maeda (59')   
  Cautions Ryuji Izumi
Eduardo Neto
Yuki Kobayashi

Jung Sung-Ryong ; Elsinho, Tatsuki Nara, Shogo Taniguchi, Shintaro Kurumaya; Hokuto Shimoda, Ryota Oshima (Ao Tanaka 90+2); Kengo Nakamura (Jumpei Noborizato 78'), Akihiro Iemoto, Hiroyuki Abe: Yu Kobayashi (Kei Chinen 72') .

 Mitch Langerak; Kazuya Miyahara, Shinnosuke Nakatani, Yuichi Maruyama, Takashi Kanai; Naoki Maeda, Yuki Kobayashi (Ariajasuru Hasegawa 88'), Eduardo Neto, Ryuji Izumi (Ryota Aoki 45'), Keiji Tamada (Yosuke Akiyama 82'), Joao Alves "Jo" Silva.



   1 - 1

The final evening match between Cerezo Osaka and Shonan Bellmare wqas about as one-sided as it gets, with the visiting team controlling the contest from start to finish, but for some reason neglecting to put the ball into the net. The Cherry Pinks paid a heavy price for their failure, and almost managed to lose altogether, but for a last-second get-out-of-jail card provided by their Keeper, of all people.

With just five minutes on the clock, Cerezo failed to clear the ball effectively following a Bellmare set play. A high floating ball dropped into a crowd just five meters above the box, and as three players all contested it, the ball suddenly bounded towards goal, directly to the feet of Kazunari Ono, who snatched up the ball, took two steps towards goal and fired a narrow-angle shot into the high left corner.

It looked like Bellmare was about to snatch a victory from nowhere, after being dominated for 90 minutes. But three minutes deep in injury time Cerezo won a corner kick and sent everyone forward to contest the kick. Keeper Kim Jin-Hyeon nodded down the cross and in the ensuing scramble Souza managed to drive the ball into the roof of the net.

22 September, 2018
Hiratsuka (BMW) Stadium


0 1H 0
1 2H 1

Kazunari Ono (87') 


Souza (90+4')   
  Cautions Hotaru Yamaguchi

Yota Akimoto; Miki Yamane, Keisuke Saka, Kazunari Ono; Keisuke Okamoto (Hirokazu Ishihara 69') Miotsuki Saito, Hiroki Akino, Daiki Sugioka; Tsukasa Umesaki, Lee Jeong-Hyeop (Kasuki Yamaguchi 78'), Keijiro Ogawa (Toshiki Ishikawa 85').

 Kim Jin-Hyeon; Riku Matsuda, Yusuke Maruhashi, Yasuki Kimoto, Matej Jonjic; Hotaru Yamaguchi, Souza, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Kazuya Yamamura, Osmar; Kenyu Sugimoto (Toshiyuki Takagi 51') .



  4 - 0      

This week's big surprise was the sudden announcement by Vissel Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani that he was sacking coach Takayuki Yoshida and all but one of his assistants, and installing Juanma Lillo, a Spaniard who (one presumes) was selected in order to inspire Kobe's high-priced Europeans, Andres Iniesta and Lucas Podolski. This might seem a bit odd to those who recall that Yoshida's predecessor, Nelsinho, was also sacked because he reportedly was not getting along well with Podolski. Certainly Lillo's coaching chops are a decent argument on their own. Nevertheless, this is not the first sign we have seen that the Crimson Cows are starting to suffer from the dreaded "Blind Faith Syndrome -- when a team becomes so packed with individual talent that instead of elevating the sum of the parts, each individual star begins to actively detract from team performance.

The opening goal of this contest reflected one of the problems that this writer has observed in the past, both with Kobe in general and Podolski in particular. Following a Reds foray into the Vissel end, the ball was cleared towards midfield. Podolski made a very athletic effort to stab the ball out of the air and immediately start a counterattack, but when his effort to make a brilliant play failed, and the ball bounded a few meters in the opposite direction, he simply stopped dead in his tracks and watched as an Urawa player snatched the ball and resumed the attack. Facing no pressure at all, Takuya Aoki settled the ball, took three steps towards the box and fired a powerful shot that managed to overpower Kim Seung-Gyu's attempted save, bounding off the keeper's right glove and into the side netting.

Of course, if there is any team in the J.League that can appreciate the dangers that Kobe is beginning to face, it would have to be the Urawa Reds -- the team that inspired the concept of a Blind Faith Syndrome. The arrival of Oswaldo Oliveira as head coach, over the summer, seems to have steadied the team by clarifying the pecking order and tamping down on some of the "swagger" that the Reds are prone to display. But despite a clear improvement over their form early in the season, the Red Rhinestones are certainly not producing results to match the quality of their roster, to say nothing of its price tag. At the start of this contest they sat just five points clear of the relegation zone, and one point behind Vissel.

Urawa's opening tally brought the home crowd fully into the contest. The sonic impact of the Saitama red army can be an imposing factor in any game. With the encouragement of a goal advantage, the Reds maintained their control over the run of play for the remainder of the first half. As intermission approached, Yosuke Kashiwagi fired in a diagonal cross just as Shinzo Koroki began a dash towards goal. The ball was played into a troublesome spot behind the defense but too far out for the keeper to reach first. Koroki only managed to get the faintest of touches to the ball, but it was enough to redirect it past Kim and extend the Reds lead at half time to 2-0.

Shortly after the break Vissel gifted the Reds with a third goal, when Shunki Takahashi passed the ball right to the Reds Yuki Muto, in his own penalty box. Muto fliched the ball over Kim's head and the keeper's fingertip swat was not enough to keep the ball out of the net. That essentially ended the match as a competitive contest. The Reds gradually eased off the offensive pressure and focused more on the occasional steal and counterattack, denying Kobe any chance to develop any attacking momentum of their own. The home team added a fourth tally with 15 minutes remaining, courtesy of Shun Nagasawa and assisted by Yosuke Kashiwagi. It was a comprehensive demolition of the one team that might be in position to challenge Urawa for the title of most prodigal spender. For the time being, this is probably the only "title" to which either team can aspire.

23 September, 2018
Saitama Stadium


2 1H 0
2 2H 0


Takuya Aoki (23')
Shinzo Koroki (43') 
Yuki Muto (53') 
Kazuki Nagasawa (76') 


Kai Shibato Cautions  

 Shusaku Nishikawa; Takuya Iwanami, Mauricio, Tomoaki Makino; Daiki Hashioka Tomoki Nagasawa (Yuki Abe 77'), Takuya Aoki, Tomoya Ugajin; Yosuke Kashiwagi (Kai Shibato 81'), Yuki Muto; Shinzo Koroki (Tadanari Lee 84'),

Kim Seung-Gyu; Shunki Takahashi (So Fujitani 73'), Reo Osaki, Hirofumi Watanabe, Wataru Hashimoto; Naoyuki Fujita, Hirotaka Mita (Shuny Mihara 89'), Lucas Podolski; Yuta Goke, Wellington Shun Nagasawa (Yogo Furuhashi 54').



 0 - 2   

The final match of the weekend matched fifth-place Consadole Sapporo against seventh-place Kashima Antlers -- two teams that are both in position to snatch an ACL berth if they can finish strongly. The Antlers are perhaps a bit preoccupied with this year's ACL campaign. The Golden Herd of Ibaraki secured a spot in the semifinals last Tuesday with a 5-0 aggregate win over China's Tianjin, and the most decorated team in Japan is hoping that this will be the year that they finally secure the only title that has eluded them.

But the more immediate task was to recover from the midweek trip to China and prepare for an away match against this year's most pleasant surprise package, Consadole Sapporo. Consadole are not only angling towards the highest finish the team has ever achieved, but they are actually in a stronger position to claim an ACL berth than all except Frontale and Sanfrecce, based on the fact that they still have a game in hand. The Snow Owls have really come together as a team under coach Mihailo Petrovic, this year. A victory over Kashima would go a long way towards establishing them as a top candidate for one of the Asian berths.

Kashima got off to a good start, creating the first two shots on goal within the opening five minutes. But Consadole had some good counterattacking rushes of their own. The size and power of their two big men, Jay Bothroyd and Ken Tokura, allow Consadole to boot the ball into space and have a pretty good prospect of maintaining possession, while the open-field dribbling skills of Chanathip Songkran and Kazuki Fukai offer options for the big men to drop the ball off once they win it in an advanced position.

Unfortunately for the home team, the practiced precision of Kashima's short passing game can tear open any defence. In the 24th minute the visitors worked the ball forward patiently until Yuma Suzuki received it in the center of the pitch, about 30 yards from goal. Locking eyes with Yasushi Endo on the right sideline, he made one feint towards the box and then suddenly lobbed the ball ovrer the Sapporo defense, as Endo sprinted in on a diagonal run that shattered the offside trap. Endo volleyed the ball straight into the back netting and the Antlers had the early lead.

Just minutes after the break, Koki Anzai -- who is emerging as a key contributor this season despite facing a strong challenge for playing time from the even younger and equally promising Hiroki Abe -- burst into the Consadole penalty area to snatch up an inlet pass from Endo. The Sapporo defenders tried to lunge into the gap and prevent a shot, but succeeded only in upending Anzai. Yuma Suzuki struck the spot kick past Gu Sung-yun and the Antlers' lead was doubled.

Coach Petrovic turned to his bench in an effort to salvage something from the match, bringing on U-22 captain Koji Miyoshi for Chanathip, just after the hour mark. Kashima responded with a nimble young dribbler of their own, the 19-year-old Hiroki Abe. While Miyoshi's appearance gave Consadole a boost in terms of continuous possession, by this time the Antlers were essentially just running out the clock. And few teams in the J.league are as adept at this as Kashima. Even the introduction of Shinji Ono, with 15 minutes remaining, was not enough to create any clear-cut chances. On the contrary, Leo Silva very nearly put the contest to bed with a rasping drive that Gu just barely managed to push around the right post. The Antlers simply held the ball up in the Consadole half of the pitch and waited for the final whistle which moved them past Consadole and into fourth place.

23 September, 2018
Sapporo Dome


0 1H 1
0 2H 1




Yasushi Endo (24')
Yuma Suzuki (48') 
  Cautions Yuma Suzuki

Gu Sung-yun; Ryosuke Shindo, Naoki Ishikawa, Akito Fukumori; Kensuke Shirai (Shinji Ono 74'), Yuki Miyazawa, Kazuki Fukai, Daiki Suga (Ryota Hayasaka 62'); Chanathip Songkran (Koji Miyoshi 65'), Ken Tokura; Jay Bothroyd .

 Kwoun Sun-Tae; Daigo Nishi, Jung Seung-Huyn, Tomoya Inukai, Shuto Yamamoto; Ryota Nagaki, Leo Silva, Yasushi Endo (Hiroki Abe 70'), Koki Anzai; Shoma Doi (Takeshi Kanamori 88'), Yuma Suzuki (Serginho 81').


 As we noted at the top, even though Frontale is slowly gaining on Sanfrecce as the two dash towards the finish line, the real interest at this point is which teams will survive what is shaping up to be a nasty and nailbiting relegation scrap. Only three points separate 11th-place Jubilo Iwata and 17th-place Gamba Osaka. In amidst that pack are high-profile teams like Yokohama F.Marinos, Nagoya Grampus, Gamba and Kashiwa Reysol. One misstep and any of these teams could find themselves in the cellar, particularly now that V.Varen seems to have found a vein of form.

Meanwhile, though an eleven-point gap has opened up between second-place Frontale and third-place FC Tokyo, the battle for ACL spots is still wide open. Tokyo currently occupies the third slot, but Kashima Antlers moved to within a single point, and three other teams -- Cerezo, Vegalta and Consadole -- are just one point further back. This is shaping up to be a very close-fought final stretch, so if you want to keep up with developments in the J.League (and Japanese football in general), bookmark this site and visit J.Soccer's Facebook page, as well.

. Team Pts Games W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Sanfrecce Hiroshima 56 27 17 5 5 42 21 +21
2 Kawasaki Frontale 52 26 16 4 6 42 20 +22
3 FC Tokyo 43 27 12 7 8 34 25 +9
4 Kashima Antlers 42 27 12 6 9 37 34 +3
5 Cerezo Osaka 41 27 10 11 6 34 30 +4
6 Vegalta Sendai 41 27 12 5 10 36 38 -2
7 Consadole Sapporo 41 26 11 8 7 35 38 -3
8 Urawa Reds 38 27 10 8 9 37 27 +10
9 Vissel Kobe 36 27 10 6 11 33 35 -2
10 Shimizu S-Pulse 34 27 10 4 13 38 40 -2
11 Jubilo Iwata 33 27 8 9 10 29 37 -8
12 Yokohama Marinos 32 27 9 5 13 45 46 -1
13 Nagoya Grampus 31 26 9 4 13 43 48 -5
14 Shonan Bellmare 31 26 8 7 11 31 36 -5
15 Sagan Tosu 30 27 7 9 11 22 28 -6
16 Kashiwa Reysol 30 27 9 3 15 33 42 -9
17 Gamba Osaka 30 27 8 6 13 29 39 -10
18 V.Varen Nagasaki 27 27 8 3 16 32 48 -16
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J1 Standings


. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Marinos 70 22 4 8 68 38 +30
2 FCTokyo 64 19 7 8 46 29 +17
3 Antlers 63 18 9 7 54 30 +24
4 Frontale 60 16 12 6 57 34 +23
5 Cerezo 59 18 5 11 39 25 +14
6 Sanfrecce 55 15 10 9 45 29 +16
7 Gamba 47 12 11 11 54 48 +6
8 Vissel 47 14 5 15 61 59 +2
9 Trinita 47 12 11 11 35 35 0
10 Consadole 46 13 7 14 54 49 +5
11 Vegalta 41 12 5 17 38 45 -7
12 S-Pulse 39 11 6 17 45 69 -24
13 Grampus 37 9 10 15 45 50 -5
14 Reds 37 9 10 15 34 50 -16
15 Sagan 36 10 6 18 32 53 -21
16 Bellmare 36 10 6 18 40 63 -23
17 Yamaga 31 6 13 15 21 40 -19
18 Jubilo 31 8 7 19 29 51 -22

J2 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Reysol 84 25 9 8 85 33 +52
2 Yoko FC 79 23 10 9 66 40 +26
4 Vortis 73 21 10 11 67 45 +22
3 Ardija 75 20 15 7 62 40 +22
5 Ventforet 71 20 11 11 64 40 +24
6 Montedio 70 20 10 12 59 40 +19
7 Hollyhock 70 19 13 10 56 37 +19
8 Sanga 68 19 11 12 59 56 +3
9 Fagiano 65 18 11 13 49 47 +2
10 Albirex 62 17 11 14 71 52 +19
11 Zweigen 61 15 16 11 58 46 +12
12 VVaren 56 17 5 20 57 61 -4
13 Verdy 55 14 13 15 59 59 0
14 FCRyukyu 49 13 10 19 57 80 -23
15 Renofa 47 13 8 21 54 70 -16
16 Avispa 44 12 8 22 39 62 -23
17 JEF United 43 10 13 19 46 64 -18
18 Zelvia 43 9 16 17 36 59 -23
19 Ehime FC 42 12 6 24 46 62 -16
20 Tochigi SC 40 8 16 18 33 53 -20
21 Kagoshima 40 11 7 24 41 73 -32
22 FCGifu 30 7 9 26 33 78 -45

J3 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Giravanz 66 19 9 6 51 27 +24
2 Thespa 63 18 9 7 59 34 +25
3 Fujieda 63 18 9 7 42 31 +11
4 Kataller 58 16 10 8 54 31 23
5 Roasso 57 16 9 9 45 39 +6
6 Cerezo U23 52 16 4 14 49 56 -7
7 Gainare 50 14 8 12 49 59 -10
8 Blaublitz 49 13 10 11 45 35 +10
9 Parceiro 49 13 10 11 35 34 +1
10 Vanuraure 48 14 6 14 49 42 +7
11 Fukushima 43 13 4 17 45 53 -8
12 AzulClaro 39 11 6 17 35 43 -8
13 YSCC 39 12 3 19 53 65 -12
14 Kamatamare 39 10 9 15 33 49 -16
15 Sagamihara 38 10 8 16 36 45 -9
16 FCTokyo U23 36 9 9 16 43 52 -9
17 Gamba U23 35 9 8 17 54 55 -1
18 Grulla 26 7 5 22 36 63 -27