Monday, May 11, 2009

Kashima the big winners in Golden Week shakedown

The national team may never sit atop the FIFA world rankings, while most European fans remain blissfully ignorant of the colourful crowds that pack into grounds to witness one of the most evenly contested leagues in the world. But there's no denying that Japanese football is unique.

The J. League fixture list does it's part, and during Golden Week - when a string of public holidays serves to give over-worked salarymen the chance to take some time off - the J. League instead has it's stars working over-time.

Three J. League rounds took place between Shōwa Day on April 29 and Children's Day on May 5, and combined with the full rounds scheduled for the weekends of April 25/26 and May 9/10 - a total of five matches in fifteen days saw the 2009 J. League table begin to take shape.

Not surprisingly there's a familiar view at the top, as two-time defending champions Kashima Antlers flexed their might to brush aside bitter rivals Urawa Reds and take control at the top of the standings.

Kashima the big winners in Golden Week shakedown


Kashima were unbeaten during the fifteen-day football extravaganza, with their worst result a 1-1 draw away at promoted Montedio Yamagata. One caveat is the game-in-hand Kashima hold as a result of their participation in the Asian Champions League. In fact, all four of Japan's Champions League combatants saw their Round 10 fixtures postponed until July 1.

Urawa Reds won't be playing on July 1 - they're not in the Champions League - and the Saitama giants will rue a 3-2 home defeat to Kawasaki Frontale in front of 51,594 fans at Saitama Stadium on May 10. That slip-up saw them concede top spot to Kashima Antlers, who beat Shimizu S-Pulse 2-1 on the same afternoon.

Gamba Osaka have moved ominously into third, with Akira Nishino's free-scoring side registering 26 goals in their ten games so far. Star signings Leandro and Cho Jae-Jin have contributed 15 goals between them, with the Kansai side scoring at will against several shell-shocked opponents.

Albirex Niigata have been the surprise package of the season so far, and they lie in fourth after beating northern rivals Montedio Yamagata 1-0 in Yamagata in their most recent clash. Nagoya Grampus round out the top five with a third of the season gone.

Of the mid-table clubs, Kawasaki Frontale in sixth look the most capable of challenging for the title, not the least because they too have a game in hand. They may have lost the Kanagawa derby 2-1 to local rivals Yokohama F. Marinos in front of 28,016 fans at Nissan Stadium on May 2, but Takashi Sekizuka's team look well placed to launch another title assault this season.

Tenth-placed Sanfrecce Hiroshima have played some of the most eye-catching football in the league, while the maddeningly inconsistent Vissel Kobe started their Golden Week run on a high by beating local rivals Gamba Osaka 3-1 in front of 20,721 fans on April 25, before succumbing to their usual mediocrity thereafter.

Capital club FC Tokyo continue to struggle in the lower reaches of the table and after a long unbeaten start under new coach Chang Woe-Ryong, Omiya Ardija have abruptly slipped down to fourteenth place.

Traditional clubs Shimizu S-Pulse and JEF United are scrapping it out in ignominious fashion in the bottom four, while Kashiwa Reysol and Oita Trinita currently occupy the final two places in the table.

Both Kashiwa and Oita have been plagued by injuries and suspension this season, but critics will point out that both the Chiba-based Reysol and Kyushu club Trinita play some of the most bruising and unattractive football in the league, and there's more than a hint of schadenfreude directed at struggling coaches Shinichiro Takahashi and Pericles for their current plight.

But it's Kashima Antlers who rule the roost after another Golden Week shakedown, and J. League fans will be licking their lips in anticipation of an epic battle with arch-rivals Urawa Reds. Throw Gamba Osaka and dark-horses Kawasaki Frontale into the mix, and the J. League looks set to brace itself for yet another of its nail-biting title races.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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