Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kashima in the driving seat as J. League nears halfway mark

Kashima in the driving seat as J. League nears halfway mark.
Kashima Antlers lead the way as the J. League nears its halfway point, with the defending champions in a familiar position atop the league standings.

Kashima are the most successful club in Japan, and the Ibaraki giants have fired a resounding warning to the rest of the league by embarking on an ominous four-match winning streak. That run includes a 4-0 thrashing away at high-flying Nagoya Grampus and a similarly emphatic 4-1 win over FC Tokyo in Kashima's most recent clash.

Urawa Reds are just two points behind their bitter rivals, however the Saitama side slumped to a 2-0 defeat away at Oita Trinita in their last match, going down courtesy of goals from Shunsuke Maeda and Ueslei.

Third-placed Nagoya Grampus beat ambitious Kashiwa Reysol 1-0 courtesy of a clinical Frode Johnsen strike at Mizuho Athletics Stadium on July 12, while Gamba Osaka have roared back into contention after beating Kawasaki Frontale 2-1 in a hard-fought clash at Expo '70 Stadium, with Brazilian duo Lucas Severino and Bare making compatriot Juninho's goal for Kawasaki redundant.

In the bottom half of the table second-from-bottom Consadole Sapporo thrashed bottom club JEF United 3-0 at the Fukuda Denshi Arena in Chiba, suggesting that JEF United fans had best start planning for J2 football next season. The Chiba side are hopelessly adrift at the bottom of the standings, some nine points outside the relegation/promotion playoff place and a further five points behind Consadole Sapporo - with the bottom two teams suffering automatic relegation.

Just after the halfway point in J2 relegated Sanfrecce Hiroshima look odds on to bounce back to the top flight, with the Mazda-backed club seemingly streaking away in the division. The southern side are lying atop the standings some thirteen points in front of second-placed Cerezo Osaka, and having amassed 55 points from 24 games with a goal difference of +31, it would take a brave punter to bet against Hiroshima lifting the J2 title.

Cerezo Osaka and Sagan Tosu are the nearest challengers, with surprise package Montedio Yamagata and Vegalta Sendai just a point further back.

Newcomers Roasso Kumamoto have struggled with the transition to professional football. The Kyushu-based outfit prop up the standings in J2 having claimed just eighteen points, however fellow newcomers FC Gifu have fared better, having amassed 30 points so far to take them up to tenth place in the fifteen team-league.

Coaching casualties mount

Yokohama F. Marinos have sacked coach Takashi Kuwahara and replaced him with Kokichi Kimura, who steps into his first role as head coach in the J. League.

Kuwahara's dismissal was widely anticipated, with the former championship-winning coach rumoured to be on the verge of the axe following Yokohama's recent 2-1 Kanagawa derby defeat to local rivals Kawasaki Frontale.

A 1-0 home loss to Albirex Niigata at Mitsuzawa Stadium on July 13 was the final straw for club officials, who promptly terminated the contract of a coach who took over from the unpopular Hiroshi Hayano in January.

Meanwhile struggling J2 outfit Avispa Fukuoka have sacked former World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski as coach and replaced him with Yoshiyuki Shinoda. Assistant coach and former Norwich midfielder Ian Crook and strength and conditioning coach Anthony Crea were also sacked, with the duo brought in from A-League side Sydney FC, whom Littbarski coached to the inaugural A-League crown.

Sorimachi names Olympic squad

Japan's quest to name a competitive squad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics reached farcical proportions when Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo was forced to withdraw due to complications related to a Hepatitis C infection.

Endo was hospitalised recently after enduring a gruelling schedule for both club and country, but that did not prevent the Japan Football Association from attempting to name the talismanic Gamba Osaka midfielder as Japan's sole overage representative for the under-23 tournament.

Endo's withdrawal comes hot on the heels of Vissel Kobe's refusal to release their star striker Yoshito Okubo for the competition. Kobe cited a persistent knee injury as their reason for refusing to allow Okubo to play in the Olympics, but sources suggest that the club were privately seething after the former Real Mallorca striker was named as Japan's likely overage representative without prior consultation with Kobe club officials.

Japan will now feature a squad comprised entirely of under-23 players, however there was no room in coach Yasuharu Sorimachi's squad for Kashima Antlers defender Masahiko Inoha. Despite captaining the team throughout the qualifying campaign, the former FC Tokyo star has seemingly paid the price for a lack of football at new club Kashima.

Two overseas-based players in VV Venlo's Keisuke Honda and Catania's Takayuki Morimoto were picked, while Cerezo Osaka teenager Shinji Kagawa and surprise package Yohei Toyoda of Montedio Yamagata represent J2's contribution to the squad.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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