Friday, September 12, 2008

Report cards are in as the J. League approaches its final term

J.League
With the international break yielding a positive result for Japan and the autumn leaves starting to make their first appearances on the tree-lined avenues surrounding the National Stadium, attention now turns to the business end of the J. League season.

Five teams are still in with a genuine chance of lifting the trophy, but northern outfit Consadole Sapporo are certainly not one of them. News that the J. League is considering switching to a European-aligned, winter-based calendar will have gone down like a lead balloon in Sapporo, where Consadole habitually spend their summers in the open-air surrounds of Atsubetsu Stadium. The Hokkaido side have been luckless at their traditional summer home this season, and they currently sit bottom of the table, with last season's J2 champions set to make a swift return to the Second Division.

Fellow northern outfit Albirex Niigata have also struggled in 2008. They may be the second-best supported team in the league - only Urawa Reds draw larger crowds - but Niigata have played some awful football under their eternally dour coach Jun Suzuki. Niigata surprised many by finishing sixth last season, but they could become embroiled in a relegation dogfight this time around, and the constant play-acting of striker Kisho Yano has won them few fans this season.

On the other side of the country Ibaraki giants Kashima Antlers are involved in an almighty scrap as they look to retain their title. Oswaldo de Oliveira's men are a point behind league leaders Nagoya Grampus, with eternal rivals Urawa Reds also breathing down their necks. Like the Reds, Kashima also have an upcoming AFC Champions League quarter-final to contend with, and they will hope that Nagoya don't skip away while de Oliveira and his men are battling for continental glory.

Urawa have played some good football this season without ever managing to shake off either Nagoya or Kashima. Coach Gert Engels has some serious concerns up front, where ex-Eintract Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara has proved a spectacular flop. Former Albirex Niigata man Edmilson has also failed to impress, and with last season's J. League MVP Robson Ponte having missed most of the campaign so far through a serious knee injury, Urawa have been forced to rely heavily on the injury-prone Tatsuya Tanaka for goals.

City rivals Omiya Ardija have been one of the most inconsistent teams this season. They've pulled off some shock wins against the likes of Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale, but Omiya fans are the first to admit that the Saitama side have benefited from a kind fixture list. The redeveloped Omiya Park has failed to become the fortress that club officials were anticipating, and while the Squirrels currently sit in the top half of the table, the orange-clad outfit may ultimately succumb to their perennial relegation battle unless Slovenian giant Klemen Lavric starts scoring freely.

Capital club FC Tokyo got off to a blazing start under the auspices of Hiroshi Jofuku, but the team from the blue half of the city have since fallen away - much to the annoyance of Tokyo's passionate fans. Former Gyeongnam FC striker Cabore was the top scorer in the Korean League last season, but the Brazilian has failed to replicate that success in Japan. He has scored just six goals in 23 league appearances for a disappointingly goal-shy outfit that looks destined to finish in mid-table.

Masashi Oguro will hope to start scoring freely soon. The former Gamba Osaka striker was brought back from a painfully disappointing spell in Italian football with Torino, to line up for fellow capital side Tokyo Verdy. He replaced the departed Hulk - who is now at FC Porto - with Verdy having swapped a dreadful start to the campaign for the relative safety of mid-table. Packed with ageing former internationals, Verdy appear to have the experience to maintain their top flight status, not that anyone in the city appears to care; Verdy have attracted some of the lowest attendances in the J. League this season.

JEF United can only dream of the security of mid-table. The Chiba outfit have been anchored to the relegation zone for the entirety of the campaign, with the arrival of coach Alex Miller in place of the sacked Josip Kuze failing to propel United up the standings. The Chiba Dogs were always going to struggle when they sold their five best players at the start of the campaign, but it nevertheless looks like being a sorry demise for one of just six J. League clubs to have played every season in the Japanese top flight, as United fans look set to welcome J2 football to Fukuda Denshi Arena next season.

Prefectural rivals Kashiwa Reysol have carried on from where they left off last season, scrapping and scraping away with a mixture of strength and the occasional sublime. The return from injury of former Bayer Leverkusen front man Franca has helped, and with Japan Olympic striker Tadanari Lee up front Reysol always look a chance of getting on the scoresheet - particularly in front of their vociferous home fans - as Nobuhiro Ishizaki's team settles in for a comfortable mid-table finish.

Kawasaki Frontale were tipped by many for a top-two finish this season, but things haven't gone particularly smoothly for the Kanagawa side. Striker Hulk was released after playing just three games for Frontale - who recalled him from a two-year loan spell in J2 - before coach Takashi Sekizuka stepped down due to health problems. Another striker in Kazuki Ganaha took the J. League to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Geneva to have a wrongful doping suspension overturned, but despite the turmoil former assistant coach Tsutomu Takahata has managed to turn things around. Kawasaki are now poised to strike; they are lying in fifth place, just two points behind league leaders Nagoya.

2008 has proved nothing short of a disaster for Yokohama F. Marinos. The three-times champions were expected to challenge for the title this year, but instead they have spent most of the campaign hovering around the relegation zone. Coach Takashi Kuwahara was sacked and replaced by former technical director Kokichi Kimura, but he has failed to win over disgruntled fans with the Nissan-backed club still struggling near the bottom three. Calls of "they're too good to do down" will ring out for as long as the Tricolore are struggling, but it's been heard all before, as fans of current J2 leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima will no doubt attest.

Further south Shimizu S-Pulse have also endured a wretched season. The departure of former star striker Cho Jae-Jin has proved a bitter blow in Shizuoka; his replacement Marcos Aurélio has failed to score a single goal, despite being the highest-paid player at the club. S-Pulse have struggled to score goals in the absence of the talismanic Jae-Jin, and a season-ending injury to playmaker Jungo Fujimoto hasn't helped. The only bright spark for S-Pulse fans has been a run to the final of the League Cup, where more than 20,000 Shimizu fans are likely to descend upon the National Stadium to see whether Kenta Hasegawa's team can salvage something from what has been a bitter campaign.

Hasegawa may count himself lucky to still be in employment. Last season it was two defeats in the Shizuoka derby that cost former Jubilo Iwata coach Adilson his job, but this time around officials at the Yamaha-backed club didn't even wait that long, as the axe finally fell on Atsushi Uchiyama with Jubilo Iwata dropping into the relegation/promotion playoff place. Highly experienced Dutch coach Hans Ooft has been called in for yet another spell in Japanese football - he knows the J. League well, and will be expected to lift the Shizuoka giants out of the bottom three come the end of the season.

By contrast Tokai rivals Nagoya Grampus are enjoying a dream run. Long regarded as the archetypal "sleeping giant" of the J. League, fiery Serb coach Dragan Stojkovic - who is regarded as a legend in the city after his playing days at the club - has finally awakened the Toyota-backed outfit from their slumber. Nagoya are currently sitting atop the J. League, having duked it out in a slugfest with Kashima and Urawa so far. When Grampus are not being referred to as a "sleeping giant," they are often being labelled "eternal chokers," and while Grampus are looking good at the moment, doubts persist about their ability to maintain composure until the final day of the campaign.

Gamba Osaka have endured a disappointing campaign that looks set to end with a mid-table finish. Injuries to key players haven't helped - Ryuji Bando has only just returned after missing most of the campaign - while the mid-season sale of star striker Baré to Emirates side Al-Ahli cost Gamba any hopes they had of winning the title. Baré has been replaced by former Yokohama F. Marinos striker Roni, but with talismanic midfielder Yasuhito Endo forced to endure a constant battle against Hepatitus-related fatigue, Gamba will need to conjure a dramatic late surge to have any chance of breaking into the top five.

Kansai rivals Vissel Kobe have cemented their position as the draw specialists of the league. They've drawn nine times so far - more than any other team - and Hiroshi Matsuda's scrappy outfit continue to infuriate Kobe fans with their inconsistent form. In Yoshito Okubo and Leandro, Vissel Kobe possess one of the most explosive strike forces in the country. Unfortunately for Kobe's dwindling supporter base - most of whom lament the involvement of controversial Chairman Hiroshi Mikitani - Kobe's strikers are too often having an off-day, and with little creativity sprinkled throughout the rest of the ranks, Vissel look set to battle it out for another mid-table finish.

Kyoto Sanga FC will be satisifed with a mid-table finish, having returned to the top flight after winning the promotion/relegation playoff against Sanfrecce Hiroshima last season. Some astute pre-season signings in the form of former Gamba Osaka man Sidiclei and ex-JEF United captain Yuto Sato have proved crucial, while the mid-season acquisitions of Hiroki Mizumoto and Fernandinho from Gamba Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse respectively means that Hisashi Kato's side should have just about enough individual talent to retain their place in the top flight.

Last, but certainly not least, is southern outfit Oita Trinita. Every season the J. League throws up a surprise package from left field, but few would have expected Kyushu outfit Oita Trinita to be in the midst of their best ever top flight campaign. Not only is coach Pericles' side currently sitting in fourth place in the league table, but they also booked a place in the League Cup final, where they will be aiming to win a first-ever trophy. Oita's astonishing turnaround from relegation candidates to potential title winners vindicates the patience of the club's back-room, who stood by Pericles last season when the Brazilian became embroiled in a tense relegation battle. Almost twelve months later the Brazilian tactician is short odds to win the "Coach Of The Season" award, and even if Oita do fall short in both the J. League and League Cup, they will rightly be remembered as the revelation of the season.

In 2005, five clubs were still in the running to lift the J. League title on the final day of the season. That's a scenario that could be repeated in 2008, and while Consadole Sapporo and JEF United look dead-and-buried in the bottom two, there could be more relegation/promotion playoff thrills-and-spills as several of the J. League's biggest names look to escape the potential trapdoor that is sixteenth place.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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