On the up

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)

Football Channel, 30th August, 2016

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.”On the up, August 30th 2016

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.


A case for the defence

Japan suffered a miserable group stage exit at the Olympics, ultimately paying the price for a lack of defensive solidity… 日本語版はこちらです

Football Channel, 16th August, 2016

After all the talk of aiming for a medal and placing a focus on defensive solidity Japan’s early exit at the Olympics – and in particular the manner of it – was hugely disappointing.

Makoto Teguramori’s side were handed a tricky but negotiable group and given what should have been a helping hand when Nigeria only arrived in Brazil hours before their opening game. Inexplicably they allowed the Nigerians to set the tempo of the match from the outset though, and defensive errors galore produced a ludicrous 5-4 defeat.

That was followed by another cautious display against a fairly mediocre Colombia side, with Japan only really gaining any foothold once they were 2-0 down and heading for elimination. Then, with Colombia on the ropes at 2-2 Japan seemed content to settle for a point, even though that then left qualification firmly in Colombia’s grasp.

As well as question marks over the team’s hesitant tactics one of the key issues was the choice of overage players. The initial impression when the squad was announced was mixed; with Shinzo Koroki looking like a smart selection, Tsukasa Shiotani understandable if a little underwhelming, but Hiroki Fujiharu seeming an odd choice.

In 2012 Takashi Sekizuka only opted to take two overage players to London, and both brought some experience and leadership to the side, which complimented the host of youthful talent coming through. Yuhei Tokunaga was 28 at the time and an experienced J.Leaguer with full national team experience, while Maya Yoshida was vital at the heart of defence.

The then-VVV Venlo player was only a year above the cut-off and so not much older than his teammates, but having already been playing in Europe for two and a half years and established himself as a first choice in the full national team under Alberto Zaccheroni – playing a key role as the side won the 2011 Asian Cup and also featuring heavily in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers – he was a calming presence at the back, guiding the physical but raw Daisuke Suzuki and demonstrating his class and composure as the team very nearly won a medal for the first time in 44 years.

Shiotani, while a very good player, doesn’t come across as a leader in the same way and is more used to playing as part of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s three-man defence rather than the more orthodox four at the back preferred by Teguramori. Fujiharu, meanwhile, is a decent J.League player and has been in and around the national team but it was a little unclear what the coach felt he would bring to the side at left back that the likes of Ryosuke Yamanaka and Masashi Kamekawa couldn’t.

Koroki did look like a good choice up front though, and did reasonably well considering the relative lack of service he got in the first two games. The Urawa Reds striker is one of the most natural finishers in the J.League and has possibly only struggled to become a more regular feature in the full national team because of his frequent injuries.

Football Channel, Monday 15th August, 2016 (Getty)

If you want to take the full quota of three overage players to the Olympics then those who bring cool heads or a touch of extra quality like Koroki are surely preferable to steady-but-unspectacular J.Leaguers. The likes of Masato Morishige, Yuki Abe, Kengo Nakamura – who works well in tandem with Ryota Oshima at Kawasaki Frontale and could have done so in Brazil too – or even Shunsuke Nakamura could surely have been convinced to head to Rio and would have brought some much-needed composure to the side as the youngsters lost their heads against Nigeria and Colombia.

Indeed, as is so often the case, the kind of players Japan lacked in Rio were those in the middle of the park to add some resilience to the spine of the side at centre back and defensive midfield.

The best Japan have done at an international tournament in recent history – perhaps ever – was at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa formed a solid partnership at the heart of defence while Abe sat in behind Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo as an extra shield to win back the ball and then distribute it to the more attack-minded players.

At the 2012 Olympics Sekizuka had Cerezo Osaka teammates Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara in front of Yoshida and Suzuki, and the pair’s familiarity and understanding added good balance to the team and enabled the likes of Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yuki Otsu, and Kensuke Nagai to focus on attacking.

This time around Teguramori never seemed sure about his first choice pairing in the middle of the park, ditching the 4-4-2 with which they had qualified and then chopping and changing who featured alongside captain Wataru Endo – who himself is perhaps better suited to a place in the backline, where he has impressed for Reds this season.

Ryota Oshima, Shinya Yajima and Riki Harakawa are all good players but none of them could be described as natural ball-winners, which meant the side had a soft core throughout which opponents regularly took advantage of.

When Japan did go forwards – which wasn’t often enough until the Sweden game, when the return to 4-4-2 and 1-0 win was too little too late – they looked good, and had plenty of attacking options, ranging from Koroki’s fox-in-the-box play, Takuma Asano’s pace and sharp shooting, and Shoya Nakajima’s ability to find the target from distance.

Musashi Suzuki and Takumi Minamino also offered glimpses in the final third, but over the three games as a whole Japan didn’t spend enough time playing with intent in that area of the pitch. They should have taken the initiative more often but were ultimately unable to do so because of a lack of security at the back.


Asano off to Arsenal

Another Japanese youngster recently moved to the Premier League, and some of Takuma Asano’s former teammates had some advice for the striker before he completed his transfer from Sanfrecce Hiroshima to Arsenal…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2016

There goes another one.

Takuma Asano bade farewell to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in tears last month, unable to mark his last game for the Purple Archers with a goal but offering the customary emotional goodbye ahead of his participation in the Rio Olympics and then his transfer to Arsenal.

Such scenes are becoming increasingly common in the J.League at this time of year, as the division’s youngsters are whisked off mid-season to Europe to ‘realise their dreams’ and ‘help Japanese football grow’, etc. and so on.

Of course, a lot of these players are soon back home with their tails between their legs, and many Arsenal fans have already decided that Asano is destined to be a flop in north London – partly because they are frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend inflated fees on top-grade strikers, and partly because Asano is yet to prove himself at anything approaching the highest level.

That is unfair on the 21-year-old, but is something he is going to have to get used to if he wants to avoid joining the likes of Kensuke Nagai, Yuki Otsu, Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takashi Usami as another full or U23 national team player to fail to make the grade in Europe (although Usami has, of course, been given a second bite of the cherry).

Mihael Mikic knows just how thick-skinned his now-former teammate will need to be once he arrives in England, and he joked that Asano may initially be helped by the fact that he doesn’t speak the local language.

“If he doesn’t score then a good point is he cannot read English,” the Croatian said with a smile after Sanfrecce’s recent 3-3 draw with Kashiwa Reysol. “Because it is not easy to live with that if your fans are so critical. I’m reading a lot and people don’t have respect for him already. But I think and hope these people will change their opinions.

“I already told him, ‘please don’t read the newspapers or the internet, don’t go to Twitter or Facebook, and don’t translate everything!’”

Mikic was laughing as he spoke but it was clear he meant what he said, and he firmly believes that if Asano can overcome the initial culture shock he can go on to become a big success in the Premier League

“He is hungry. That means he will take this chance; I believe he will take this chance. I really want that he takes this chance and improves more there, because Wenger is one special coach for a young player. My opinion is he is maybe the next Michael Owen. He really, really has this potential. If he starts scoring then he is unstoppable, in my opinion.”

A failure to hit the ground running is perhaps the biggest concern for Asano, and if he struggles to have an instant impact – more likely at another club in Europe on loan before he makes it onto the pitch at the Emirates– then it will take a huge mental effort to stay focused and demonstrate his true ability.

Football Channel, 28th July, 2016 (Getty)

Peter Utaka agrees that Asano can’t afford to dwell on things and needs to keep his head up.

“I’ve prepared his mind for that already, because I played in Europe for more than 10 years and I’ve told him that it’s not like in Japan, no-one’s going to say to you, ‘no problem, no problem’ – it is a problem [for the fans], and there is pressure every game,” the Nigerian said.

“Every chance you miss could cost the game and could be crucial for you and the team, so you’re going to have to be ruthless in front of the goal. He knows that already, because I’ve told him, so let him prepare his mind because English fans don’t do criticism like Japanese fans (laughs). He’s going to get the shock of his life!”

Utaka agrees that having Arsene Wenger oversee his development is a huge plus for Asano, and hopes he is able to fully capitalise on this opportunity.

“I know Arsenal like to have young players and turn them into great players, so I think it’s a great move for him. There’s a lot of competition there for him but he just has to be focused and work hard and see the plans they have for him. I know he needs time to adapt, not just to the league but to living abroad, because this is his first time not in Japan, so it’s going to be a big challenge for him.

“Mentally he’s very strong and he’s a very dangerous player when he’s running behind the defence. He’s very hungry to score goals. He’s never satisfied; he always wants to score in training and in games, and if he doesn’t score he’s like, ‘my job is not done, I need to score’.”

Despite holding himself to the highest standards, Utaka is hopeful that Asano doesn’t get too weighed down by the expectations on him and has noticed an increased determination in the youngster since the move was agreed.

“He’s not nervous, he wants to go with his head high so he’s working the same, and even a little bit more. At the training ground I see him in the gym every single day. In training and in games he wants to score goals and go to Arsenal with his head high. He hasn’t changed but he wants to improve, he wants to add more quality.

“But he can’t put himself under pressure. He just has to be very cool-headed and focused to make sure he gets the job done when he gets the opportunity to play.”

At the end of the day playing and performing is the only thing that matters for Asano, and how well he is able to zone out the background noise will be key to determining whether he makes a success of this chance or not.


Marinos hit the ground running

Yokohama F.Marinos have started the second stage of the J1 season in good form, and after their recent win over Avispa Fukuoka Manabu Saito and Quenten Martinus spoke about th team’s new attacking accent… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 14th July, 2016

The usual suspects have started the second stage of the J1 season strongly, with Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale – who were jostling for the first stage title until Kashima Antlers pipped them both to the post – and 2014 treble winners Gamba Osaka all winning their first two games.

Yokohama F.Marinos have also picked up six points from six, and while both 3-0 victories have come against sides more focused on survival than glory in the top flight, in Shonan Bellmare and Avispa Fukuoka, there are signs of improvement for Erick Mombaerts’ side – particularly when considering they started the first stage with a loss at home to Vegalta Sendai and then a draw away to Avispa.

Marinos finished the first stage in 11th place, a full 17 points behind winners Kashima and 11 adrift of third-placed Reds, primarily because they only managed to win two of their nine home games, scoring just eight goals in front of their own fans and failing to register in five of the matches they hosted.

On the flip side, however, they won five and lost just twice away from home, scoring 16 goals and only failing to find the net on one occasion. With their defence as resolute as ever it would appear that Mombaerts is warming to the idea of playing with a little more attacking verve, and he certainly has the players in his squad to cause teams problems in that respect.

“We have to increase the amount of times we win the second balls back from the opponent and then break quickly,” the team’s livewire-in-chief, Manabu Saito, said after scoring the opener in the win over Avispa. “By doing that I was able to break through from the side and get the goal today. Overall the performance wasn’t great, but winning is everything. We’re not playing well but have won 3-0 and 3-0 – that doesn’t happen so often.”

Indeed, you have to go back to the start of the 2013 season – the year that Marinos came tantalizingly close to becoming champions – for the last time they scored three times in back-to-back league games (3-2 v. FC Tokyo, 3-1 v. Sanfrecce), and all the way to the beginning of the 2010 campaign for the most recent time they won consecutive games by three goals or more without conceding (3-0 v. Shonan and 4-0 against Kawasaki).

Manabu Saito and Martinus, Getty

“We need to score more goals, and if we are able to finish teams off on the counter then I think we will have become a strong team,” Saito added. “We have to show more in that respect. [Quenten] Martinus, Kayke, me, we have to do more and make more chances in open play. I think we’ve switched to two up front in order to do that, to take the initiative from the opponent.”

That shift to playing with two strikers certainly adds to Marinos’ threat going forwards, and Martinus believes the double spearhead of Kayke and Cayman Togashi has helped Marinos to hit the ground running.

“[Cayman] is a player who runs a lot and I think that’s good for us because he makes a lot of space for me, for Manabu.” The Curaçaoan told me after the Avispa match.

“Kayke also runs a lot, so if they come to the ball we go behind them because if [the defenders] come with them there is a lot of space behind. If [the defenders] stay then we come in the midfield and we take the ball and then we can make combinations. I think it’s a good combination, Kayke and Cayman together, because they run a lot so Manabu and me get a lot of chances – because we have a lot of speed, Manabu and me – to go behind the line. And I think that is our power.”

The pair certainly kept the Avispa defence on their toes with their unpredictable and direct play, and even before Saito swept past Kim Hyun-hun and left Shunsuke Tsutsumi for dead to put Marinos 1-0 up in the 38th minute the 26-year-old had shown his intent with a trademark run that left a trail of grey shirts in his wake just before the half-hour mark.

“I think me and Manabu are players who have our own will,” Martinus said. “Sometimes you need to play for the team but sometimes you need to do something, to try. If you always do the same things teams can look at you and then they know the next time, but Manabu and me we try to do something and it’s always difficult for the opponent.

“The coach said to me, ‘make dribbles’, because here in Japan not many people [do that] they only want to pass. That is typical J.League: pass, pass, pass, tick, tick, tick, one touch, two touch. Me and Manabu try to dribble [past] one guy and then you have a man more because one man is down, then you can make one or two passes.”

And then you can score one or two (or three) goals, as well. The new approach has worked well for Martinus and co. so far, and it will be interesting to see how teams cope with the new-look, more direct Marinos as the second stage progresses.


Key for Kashima

It is of course goals that win games, but Kashima Antlers’ solid defence was vital to the  club’s J1 first stage title success… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 29th June, 2016

Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds may have been jostling for top spot in J1 from Round 3 onwards, alternating at the summit until Kawasaki lost their nerve away to Avispa Fukuoka on the penultimate weekend of the season, but it was ultimately Kashima Antlers who surged through to seal the first stage title.

While Frontale’s stumble in Kyushu and Reds’ catastrophic run of five games without a win between mid-May and mid-June ultimately cost the pair, nothing should be taken away from Masatada Ishii’s side, who claimed the first spot in this year’s Championship on the back of a six-game winning streak, completed on Saturday with the minimum of fuss against the same Avispa side Kawasaki could only draw with the previous week.

That string of victories closed out a nine-game unbeaten run, during which time Antlers conceded just five times. Indeed, the Ibaraki side ended the first stage with the best defensive record in J1, only letting in 10 goals and keeping nine clean sheets in their 17 games.

That solidity was built on a consistency in the backline, with the same back five of Hitoshi Sogahata, Daigo Nishi, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda, and Shuto Yamamoto starting every game they were available for. Only two other players featured when one of the regulars was injured or suspended, with Yukitoshi Ito filling in at full-back for four games and Bueno slotting into the centre for three.

One of those was the 2-0 win over Avispa on Saturday, when the Brazilian looked alert and confident covering for Shoji, sweeping up well in the early stages when Antlers looked a little shaky and dealing with his physical compatriot Wellington throughout.

“We weren’t nervous but we knew that they were going to come at us from the start and that we couldn’t just sit back and accept that but also had to press from the front,” Yamamoto said post-match.

“That was how it turned out and it was a slightly difficult start to the game for us, but bit by bit we started to control the flow of the game and after we scored the first goal we were really able to play at our pace, I think.”

The full-back’s 27th-minute header certainly settled things down for the home side and took the wind out of Avispa’s sails, and Gaku Shibasaki provided a further insight into Kashima’s staying power.

“There are spells in games when things are going well and those when they aren’t, but during those difficult periods we have a style we can return to and we all know what we have to do,” the Japan midfielder said. “I think because we are all aware of that fact we have been able to put together this run of results.

Football Channel, Wedensday June 29th, 2016 (Shinya Tanaka)

“In particular we have conceded very few goals, and the team as a whole has had an increased awareness of defending together. There is no doubt that from a good defence you can build good attacks. We’re doing well in that respect at the moment, but from now on we want to improve our accuracy even more and I think we are capable of continuing this run of consecutive wins into the second stage.”

One way in which the team could improve is to have the defenders finding the net more often. Yamamoto’s opener against Avispa was just the second time one of them had registered this season, after Nishi’s winner against his former side Albirex Niigata in May, and with Shoji and Ueda both imposing players they should be contributing more from set pieces especially.

That’s not to say they aren’t trying, however, and Ueda’s all-round play has been particularly impressive this season. The Olympic centre-back looks increasingly assured in possession and resembled John Terry at his peak at one point against Avispa, snatching possession in his own half before surging out of defence with the ball, playing it out wide, and continuing his driving run into the opposition penalty area where he almost latched onto the final ball into the box to convert what would have been a wonderful goal.

“We were really focused on picking up the title,” the 21-year-old said when asked about the cut-throat way in which Antlers wrapped up the first stage. “We didn’t lose any of our last games and there was an even stronger feeling than usual within the team that we were absolutely going to win each one.

“We’ve also conceded fewer and fewer goals, and the forward players have contributed a lot in that respect. It wasn’t just down to the strength of the defence, it’s truly been a case of the team coming together and fighting as one.”

They will have to exhibit that even more in the second half of the season with Ueda set to miss several games while he is in Rio with Teguramori’s Under 23 side. While his absence is sure to be a blow, however, Bueno demonstrated the strength in depth Antlers have at centre-back, where they also have another fine player in reserve with Hwang Seok-ho yet to feature in 2016 on account of injury and the fine form of Shoji and Ueda.

Building from the back has worked for Antlers so far, and it is hard to see those foundations failing as the season progresses.


Kashima focused on big prize after 1st-stage title

Despite winning the first stage of the J1 season at the weekend, Kashima Antlers aren’t getting carried away and  the players are keeping their eyes on the bigger picture…

The Japan News, Monday 27th June, 2016

KASHIMA, Ibaraki — Kashima Antlers won their first league trophy since 2009 on Saturday, but the addition wasn’t a cause for mass celebration.

The most successful club in J.League history wrapped up the J1 first-stage title after Shuto Yamamoto and Shoma Doi found the net in a 2-0 cruise over bottom-placed Avispa Fukuoka, but the players took the triumph in stride and have their sights set on the ultimate prize at the end of the season.

“We’ve won the first stage but you can’t call that a real title,” captain Mitsuo Ogasawara said.

“What we have to do now is also win the second stage and then go on to become overall champions. We can’t be satisfied with just this and need to keep winning from now on, too.”

That was also the way Ogasawara’s central midfield partner Gaku Shibasaki reacted to the success, seeing it as little more than a checkpoint on the way to becoming the yearly champion.

“Of course we’re delighted with this, but we won’t get carried away,” the 24-year-old said.

“I think we are capable of completing the perfect sweep of titles, but every team starts back at zero now and we have to just start working toward winning the second stage title.”

The J.League’s top flight returned to a two-stage format last season, with up to five teams qualifying for a postseason playoff series to battle for the crown as the year’s champion.

By winning the first stage Antlers have secured one of those spots, and Daigo Nishi is confident they can go on to finish the job.

“I think it’s really big for us to have gained a ticket for the playoffs,” the fullback said.

“We know we have an aptitude for knockout football. We’re still not the finished article, but I sense the team is growing bit by bit, and if we can keep going in that vein until the very end then I think we’ll do OK.”

Kashima Antlers lift the J1 first stage trophy - Kashima Saturday 25th June, 2016

Nishi believes that victories over the division’s other big hitters were vital to enabling his side — which only moved top of the table for the first time on June 18 — to pip Kawasaki Frontale to the post by a point.

“Beating Urawa [Reds], [Sanfrecce] Hiroshima, and Gamba [Osaka] was big,” he said. “I think we were able to become the champion because we won those games.”

Naomichi Ueda agreed, singling out the 2-0 win away to Urawa on June 11 as especially key.

“I think every game has been important, but the Urawa match was particularly big for us,” the Olympic centerback said.

“Since I joined Kashima [in 2013] we hadn’t beaten them, and so winning that game gave us real momentum.”

Goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata suggested the impetus for Kashima’s achievement came even further back, citing last season’s Nabisco Cup success — when Masatada Ishii’s side swept past defending champion Gamba 3-0 — as a turning point for the team.

“I think having that experience played a part in enabling us to win the first stage,” said the stopper, who has won the league six times with the club.

“It gave us confidence and now we’ve gained even more by picking up this title. We have to take advantage of that in the second stage.”

Ueda was in full agreement and dismissed claims that the team now has one hand on the trophy.

“What’s really important is to be the champion at the end,” said the 21-year-old, who is likely to miss a handful of games for his club while away with Japan at the Rio Games in August.

“Winning this title doesn’t mean we are the champion, I think everybody understands that. Everyone now wants to switch their focus to the next stage, and we just have to fight to become the second-stage champion now.”

That quest gets under way Saturday, when they welcome Gamba to Kashima as the second half kicks off.


Three Horse Race

The first stage of the 2016 J1 season has almost reached its conclusion, with Kawasaki Frontale, Kashima Antlers, and Urawa Reds in the tussle for the first trophy of the season.

Soccerphile, 15th June, 2016

I spoke to players from a couple of the teams still in the race for the first stage crown for Soccerphile.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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