Round 19 in the J. League could prove a turning point for several clubs with a number of marquee fixtures set down for the weekend of July 26/27.
The pick of the Saturday fixtures see FC Tokyo host Yokohama F. Marinos at Ajinomoto Stadium, as teams from Japan's two largest cities get ready to rumble in the capital.
After making an excellent start to the season FC Tokyo have fallen away of late, and substitute Shingo Akamine's last minute equaliser in their most recent 1-1 draw away at Kyoto Sanga FC followed heavy losses to both Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers.
Yokohama F. Marinos are worse off having recorded six straight losses, including two under new coach Kokichi Kimura, whose tactics and team selections appear to have baffled both Marinos players and fans alike.
At Todoroki Stadium sixth placed Kawasaki Frontale host third placed Nagoya Grampus, with both teams coming off last start wins. Kawasaki came from behind to beat Urawa Reds 3-1 in front of more than 50,000 fans at Saitama Stadium, while Nagoya hammered Urawa's cross-town rivals Omiya Ardija 4-0 at Mizuho Athletics Stadium.
Elsewhere on Saturday there's a nostalgia-filled clash between rivals of yesteryear Jubilo Iwata and Tokyo Verdy at Yamaha Stadium, while fourth placed Gamba Osaka host Oita Trinita at Expo '70 Stadium, with Gamba having recently announced plans to build a new 35,000 capacity stadium not far from their current home.
All eyes on Sunday will be on Kashima Stadium, where Kashima Antlers host bitter rivals Urawa Reds. All tickets for this clash have been snapped up with around 40,000 fans expected to descend on Kashima Stadium, as Urawa aim for revenge having given up the J-League crown on the final day of last season to their hated rivals.
Kashima currently top the J. League standings on 34 points, while three clubs in the form of Urawa, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus are a further two points back. At the bottom of the standings JEF United prop up the table some six points adrift of second-from-bottom Consadole Sapporo, while Yokohama F. Marinos currently occupy the promotion/relegation playoff place, albeit with just under half the season remaining.
League Cup quarter-finals loom large
The second leg of Nabisco League Cup quarter-finals takes place on August 6, with all of the ties still in the balance.
Oita Trinita arguably hold the most commanding lead from the first leg, having scored two away goals in their 2-1 win over FC Tokyo at Ajinomoto Stadium.
Nagoya Grampus will also feel confident of booking their place in the final four having beaten JEF United 1-0 away from home, while Gamba Osaka beat Yokohama F. Marinos 1-0 at Kanazawa Stadium.
The pick of the fixtures will see Shimizu S-Pulse host Kashima Antlers at what should be a packed Nihondaira Stadium, with the tie delicately poised at 0-0 from the first leg. Shimizu have been Kashima's bogey side in recent years, and having beaten Kashima 1-0 in the league at Nihondaira earlier this season, Kenta Hasegawa's side will feel confident of progressing in a competition that arguably heralds Shimizu's best chance of winning a trophy this season.
J. League schedule set for amendment
From 2010 the J. League will align with the European calendar according to Motoaki Inukai, new President of the Japan Football Association.
"Soccer should not be played in the summer. Players can't move well," Inukai told reporters, despite the fact that summer football has proved popular during the J. League's sixteen year existence.
Currently the league runs from March until December, meaning that Japanese players moving to Europe generally do so in the middle of a campaign - a problem that has also plagued J. League clubs in their attempts to sign talent from Europe.
Sorimachi's side gears up for twin test
Yasuharu Sorimachi's under-23 side are shaping up for their final two friendlies before the team jets off to the Beijing Olympics, with Japan taking on the Australian under-23 side at Home's Stadium in Kobe on July 24, before they face off with Lionel Messi's Argentina at the National Stadium in Tokyo on July 29.
Former Albirex Niigata coach Sorimachi is under pressure to produce a winning outfit, but with Japan having been drawn in a tough group that also contains the Netherlands, Nigeria and the USA at the Olympics, his team faces a tough task to reach the knock-out stages of the competition, with Japan hoping for a repeat of their performance at the 1968 Olympics where they took out the bronze medal.
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