The contest at the top of J2 is looking a lot less open than usual this season, and with a dozen games still to play it looks like we already know the six teams in the mix for promotion to the top flight… (日本語版はこちらです)
Despite the fact there are still seven games to play in J1, things are looking all but set at both ends of the overall table. Kawasaki Frontale, Urawa Reds, and Kashima Antlers look odds-on to be in the Championship, while Avispa Fukuoka, Shonan Bellmare, and Nagoya Grampus need miracles (or maybe just Tulio?) to avoid relegation.
Unusually the picture is similarly clear at the top of J2. Since the play-offs were introduced in 2012 the second division has maintained a healthy level of competition as seasons have neared their climaxes, with nigh-on half the teams involved in with a shout of making the post-season competition for promotion to J1.
This year things look a little different though, and with 12 games left to play there is already a seven-point gap between Kyoto Sanga in the last play-off spot in sixth and seventh-placed Renofa Yamaguchi. At the top, meanwhile, Consadole Sapporo are nine points clear of second-placed Matsumoto Yamaga and 12 above third-placed Cerezo Osaka and looking clear favourites for the title – or at the very least automatic promotion.
With that in mind thoughts are already turning to the pressure of the play-offs, and after Shimizu S-Pulse’s recent 2-0 win over Yokohama FC – which moved Shimizu up to fifth and left Yokohama in 10th, 11 points outside the play-off places – Chong Tese made it clear that Shinji Kobayashi’s side don’t expect anything less than a spot in the end of season shootout.
“We’re not really paying any attention to what’s happening below us, we’re not thinking about dropping down to seventh,” he said. “We have the game against Matsumoto to come too [on 25 September]. So far we have lost important games like that – against the likes of Sapporo and Cerezo– but if we can beat them then we’ll be able to move up.”
There are two rounds of games before that clash, but assuming no slip-ups in the meantime a Shimizu win over Yamaga could mean just three points separating the teams in second and sixth – a mini-league contesting the last automatic promotion spot, with the nerve-shredding play-offs the consolation for the unlucky four who miss out.
“Of course we are aiming for second but in reality third looks more achievable as it’s not only dependent upon us but how the teams above us do too,” Tese added. “All the teams above us are also aiming for second, and it’s our responsibility to do the same. Initially though we have to make sure we are up in third and then we can think about second.”
S-Pulse have more than matched the rest of the chasing pack, of late, picking up 10 points from their last five games, with three wins, one draw, and a solitary defeat, away to Sapporo. That is the same return as Fagiano Okayama in fourth, while Kyoto have claimed nine points and Matsumoto and Cerezo have each gathered seven.
The Shizuoka side are also the division’s leading scorers with 57 goals, and after an unsteady start to life in the second tier with blanks fired in each of their first four home games Shimizu have been free-flowing in front of goal and only failed to find the target in three games since.
“The team is doing very well in terms of attacking at the moment,” Tese, top scorer in the league with 17 goals, said after the win over Yokohama – the first time in six games that he hadn’t found the net after eight goals in the previous five games. “I’m not worried that I didn’t score today though. I want to become the kind of player who can score for the team in difficult situations, and while I wanted to get a goal at 0-0 here I feel that we are combining well in attack.”
Those difficult situations are sure to arise, and Tese is hoping the team will cope with the pressure as it begins to mount.
“You could see in the recent Sapporo game [in which Shimizu came back from 2-0 down to 2-2, only to then concede again right at the death] a bit of a mental weakness, and we have to get stronger in that respect.”
The former Kawasaki Frontale star believes there is more than enough experience and ability in the Shimizu squad to ultimately see them over the line though, and is hopeful they can come good when it matters the most.
“With our quality we can only improve. We have the feeling that we can win going into every game. In almost all our games we have scored first and when that happens the opponent begins to pour more players forward and maybe we haven’t been able to deal with it so well. Most of our games have been there for us to win and most of the times we haven’t have been because of us letting them slip.”
Indeed, S-Pulse have opened the scoring in 18 of their matches, being pegged back to draw four times and losing once – a total of 11 points squandered after taking the lead.
They can’t let many more opportunities pass them by between now and the end of the season, but with Tese in form, Genki Omae due back from injury soon, and a coach who has plenty of experience navigating the road from J2 to J1 they still have every chance of an instant return to the top flight.