Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nagoya Grampus hoping to make history

Nagoya Grampus hoping to make history.
When infielder Masahiko Morino popped up a sacrifice fly to edge Chunichi Dragons past Yokohama Baystars and into first place in Nippon Professional Baseball's Central League overnight, he ensured Nagoya's two major sporting teams currently top their respective leagues.

The Dragons last won the Japan Series in 2007, in a year in which their footballing counterparts struggled to make an impact - ultimately limping into a miserable eleventh-placed finish in the J. League.

Much has changed since then, with Nagoya Grampus dropping the "Eight" from their name and appointing legendary former midfielder Dragan Stojkovic as coach in January 2008. His team has been on an upward trajectory ever since, and Nagoya residents are now dreaming of an unlikely double for their baseball and football stars.

The J. League resumes this weekend with Grampus facing an uncomfortable trip north to the rugged, rural hills of Yamagata, and Stojkovic will be desperate to see his side add to the 14 victories they've claimed from 21 league games played so far.

But despite their lofty position in the table, it's difficult to envisage Nagoya Grampus as the best team in Japan. They may have won 14 times already, but they've lost virtually every marquee fixture they've played.

A 3-2 home defeat to Kawasaki Frontale was replicated by a 2-1 defeat on the road at Urawa Reds, and when Nagoya hosted defending champions Kashima Antlers, the Ibaraki side crushed Stojkovic's men 4-1. A subsequent trip to Todoroki Stadium saw Kawasaki swat them aside in a humiliating 4-0 loss, and Nagoya thrice gave up the lead in a pulsating 3-3 draw with Tokai rivals Shimizu S-Pulse.

Worse yet for Nagoya fans, they still have big guns Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashima Antlers to face again, while surprise package Cerezo Osaka are currently lying second and itching to avenge a 1-0 defeat to Nagoya earlier the season, when the two sides meet at Toyota Stadium on October 30.

Should Nagoya slip up, Cerezo are currently the best-placed side to take advantage, however provincial heavyweights Shimizu S-Pulse are level on points with Cerezo and just five points behind the league-leading Grampus.

Like fellow title chasers Nagoya and Cerezo, Shimizu have never won the J. League title, and coach Kenta Hasegawa is desperate to collect some silverware on the back of a fruitless five-year stint in charge.

Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale are lurking just behind the trophy-hungry S-Pulse, but after three years of utter Kashima dominance, J. League fans could be forgiven for hoping to see a different name on the trophy this season.

At the other end of the table, yo-yo club Kyoto Sanga and the hapless Shonan Bellmare look doomed, but the fight to avoid the third relegation place could boil down to a four-way tussle.

Omiya Ardija, Vissel Kobe, Vegalta Sendai and incredibly FC Tokyo are all locked on 21 points going into the resumption of league football, with none of the four showing signs that they're capable of skipping clear of the bottom three any time soon.

Kashiwa Reysol are streaking away with the J2 title, but the battle for the remaining promotion places could be a three-horse race between Ventforet Kofu, JEF United and Avispa Fukuoka in the J. League's second tier.

League Cup
An all-Shizuoka League Cup final remains a possibility after Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata both scraped through to the semi-finals of this year's competition.

Shimizu edged past defending champions FC Tokyo on the away goals rule after the pair drew 1-1 in Tokyo, before playing out a scoreless draw at Nihondaira Stadium.

Jubilo Iwata knocked out Vegalta Sendai, while Kawasaki Frontale impressively dispatched Kashima Antlers and Sanfrecce Hiroshima knocked out Gamba Osaka, with Japan's four AFC Champions League representatives parachuting into the tournament at the quarter-final stage.

The first leg of the semi-finals will be held on September 29, with Jubilo Iwata hosting Kawasaki Frontale and Sanfrecce Hiroshima welcoming Shimizu S-Pulse to Big Arch Stadium.

Emperor's Cup
There's always one every season, and this year it was the turn of Vegalta Sendai to suffer the embarrassment of going out to a lower-tier side in the second round of the Emperor's Cup.

To make matters worse for Vegalta coach Makoto Teguramori, it was city rivals Sony Sendai who knocked his team out, with the Japan Football League side triumphing in extra-time over a Vegalta outfit who reached the semi-finals last season.

Elsewhere, the only other major casualty was embattled J2 side Tokyo Verdy, who went out at the hands of neighbours Machida Zelvia.

The third round kicks off on October 9, with Sony Sendai hosting Cerezo Osaka, while JFL side Machida Zelvia face a daunting trip to Big Swan Stadium to take on Albirex Niigata.

Copyright © Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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