Petrovic impressing in Sapporo

Consadole Sapporo have been one of the surprise packages in J1 so far this season, with Mihailo Petrovic showing once again that he knows exactly how to get a team working as a unit… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 23rd May, 2018 11th May, 2018

Sanfrecce Hiroshima are clearly the surprise package of the J1 season as we head into the World Cup break, and the turnaround Hiroshi Jokuku has brought about in last season’s 15th-placed side to leave them nine points clear at the top of the table has been remarkable.

He is not the only experienced manager to have made an instant impression at his new club, with Kenta Hasegawa also slipping straight into his groove at FC Tokyo and ensuring they are the side closest to the Purple Archers after 15 games.

The work of Mihailo Petrovic at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo is equally impressive though, and the 60-year-old has not wasted any time instilling his possession-based football in a team that was sitting 15th on just 12 points after 15 games of the 2017 season.

Shuhei Yomoda ultimately steered the club comfortably to their joint-best finish of 11th last term, and he seemed a little harshly treated when Consadole decided to replace him with Petrovic ahead of the 2018 campaign.

With Yomoda kept on as head coach alongside Petrovic, however, the team have gone from strength to strength this year, and despite a 4-0 humbling away to Kobe last weekend – their first defeat in 12 games, and one suffered with nine men after the sendings-off to Kim Min-tae and Hiroki Miyazawa – they sit fifth in the standings, level on 26 points with Cerezo Osaka and just one behind reigning champions and third-placed Kawasaki Frontale.

The players know there’s still a long way to go though, and talismanic striker Jay Bothroyd made it clear after the 0-0 draw away to Tokyo on 13 May that the team have no intention of resting on their laurels.

“I think there’s still another level we can play at,” the Englishman said after making his return from a two-month injury lay-off.

“I don’t like to get too carried away, it’s only 13 or 14 games so there’s another 20 games left and this is not the business part of the season – the back end is, the middle is – and that’s when we need to be in this kind of form.”

The 36-year-old was quick to acknowledge the impact Petrovic has had in building on last year’s success, but was keen to stress that the team’s improvement actually started at the end of the previous season.

“Of course he’s brought in a different mentality – we’ve got a different strategy, a different style of play. But I know at the back end of (2017), the last 13 games we won 10, drew one, lost two [actually won seven, drew three, lost three].

Football Channel, 24th May 2018

“We know we’re a good team, but this year Misha’s got us playing out from the back, attacking football, and I think it’s improved players individually. Last year we were more direct whereas this year we’re building up well, making chances, doing link-up play.”

A key reason that modified approach is working so well is the continued improvement of Chanathip Songkrasin, with the 24-year-old going from strength to strength after arriving in Sapporo at the same time as Bothroyd last summer.

“Last year we played on the counter from defence, whereas this year we don’t only play defensively but also in an attacking style by building passes,” the Thailand star said after the Tokyo game. “You could possibly say there’s more of an attacking ‘switch’.

“In the first year maybe my teammates didn’t expect quite so much of me, but this year there’s increased trust and I get more of the ball, and I think I’ve been able to do reasonably well in terms of making chances.”

As well as that the diminutive playmaker has also found the net three times, although he insists that’s an area he wants to improve further upon.

“I think my weak point is still scoring goals,” Songkrasin, who suggested he would be keen to make his loan from Muangthong United permanent next year, added. “From now on I want to work hard in order to contribute more goals.”

As always in a Petrovic side, however, the results are ultimately a team effort, with every player fulfilling an important role and seeming to relish carrying it out for their manager.

The Serbian has always been a popular figure amongst those who play under him, and it is hard to find any who have a bad word to say about the man who lay the foundations for Sanfrecce’s success and then delivered Urawa Reds’ first piece of silverware for nine years.

Yoshiaki Komai, who also played under Petrovic in Saitama, has four assists to his name since joining him in Hokkaido, for instance, while Koji Miyoshi has three, as does Akito Fukumori – who seems to have been given the ‘Makino’ role as an attack-minded defender, as well as posing a real threat from dead ball situations.

Petrovic once commented while under pressure at Urawa that he would never quit, and that if he was fired he would not waver in his philosophy but merely continue playing the kind of football he believed in at another club – laying the foundations and convinced it would reap rewards over time. It is still early days at Sapporo, but the manager shows no signs that he has given up on that aim, and the players under his guidance appear as trusting of his methods as ever.


Pouring forward under Postecoglou

Yokohama F.Marinos have been one of the most assertive sides in J1 this season, and while they haven’t picked up as many points as plaudits things look sure to improve as the players adapt to Ange Postecoglou’s methods… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 11th May, 2018

They may be hanging around at the wrong end of table in 15th after last Saturday’s 1-1 draw away to Nagoya Grampus, but Yokohama F.Marinos’ start to 2018 has certainly been eventful.

Whether it’s been seven-goal first-half rollercoasters, 17-pass moves producing goals, or their sweeper-keeper being lobbed from 50 yards, the Nissan Stadium side have provided plenty of entertainment thus far in the 2018 season.

Points-wise they have picked up just 13 from their first 13 games, and uncharacteristically they have the second-worst defence in J1 having conceded 21 times already (they only let in 36 in the whole of the 2017 J1 campaign), but on the flip side the attacking style introduced by Ange Postecoglou has seen them score as many as league-leading Sanfrecce Hiroshima and reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale (17).

“It’s a bit disappointing,” Postecoglou said of his team’s failure to hold on for the win after scoring first against Grampus.

“In the first half I thought we controlled the game, and although we let them back into it a little in the second we had three or four good chances at the end and it’s disappointing we couldn’t take them.”

Placing a focus on the attack epitomises the 52-year-old’s approach to the game, and his early-stage Marinos have certainly lived up to the expectations placed on him to introduce the possession-based, positive style he employed in his previous job in charge of the Australia national team.

While Marinos have only managed to win three games so far opposing players have been full of praise for the way they are playing, with Atsuto Uchida expressing his awe at the way 40-year-old Yuji Nakazawa operated such a high line in Kashima Antlers’ 3-0 loss on 28 April, while another former J1 champion was hugely impressed after his side took on Nakazawa and co. earlier in the season, commenting, “that is football!”.

The always-forward-thinking stance has, of course, played a part in several of the goals the side have conceded so far – most glaringly Taishi Taguchi’s second from distance in Jubilo Iwata’s 3-1 win on 2 May – but at the same time it has led to left back Ryosuke Yamanaka being the team’s biggest assist provider with four.

It always looked like they would need time to adapt to Postecoglou’s particular style, and the manager himself was eager to stress before a ball had been kicked that he would initially need to focus on laying new foundations.

Football Channel, Thursday 10th May 2018

“If you look over the last three years, they’ve really changed the squad tremendously,” he said at the J.League’s pre-season press conference.

“The age demographic has come down considerably – it was a fairly ageing squad and now it’s a fairly young squad – so I think there’s a good foundation there for us to continue to build on.

“We want to be an aggressive, attacking team and to do that you’ve got to be fit and play at a certain tempo, so we’ve concentrated on that in training. That’s the foundation and from that we’ll build and give the players more idea tactically of how we play.”

They certainly haven’t been helped too much in that aim by the heavy schedule in J1 so far this year, and it’s far from surprising that a team getting to grips with such a high pressing style has struggled to produce consistently positive results when playing two games a week every week.

Postecoglou dismissed fatigue as a factor in the defensive errors that produced the hectic 4-4 with Shonan Bellmare on 21 April, but you have to think things will become easier once the schedule calms down a little. After the break for the World Cup there will be a handful more midweek games in July and early August, but the final third of the season will be far less strenuous, and with a full week to recover from and prepare tactically for each game they shouldn’t have any trouble climbing up the table.

First up they have a couple of home games against fellow slow starters Gamba Osaka and J1 new-boys V-Varen Nagasaki to close out the pre-World Cup section of the season, and they’ll want to head into that break in as good a position as possible in order to attack the second half of the campaign in a positive frame of mind.

Postecoglou could, of course, have been heading to Russia himself with the Socceroos. He was adamant ahead of the season that he had no regrets about stepping down before leading his country at a second World Cup, however, and was now fully focused on leading his new team to glory.

“I felt that was the time for me to move on and try a new challenge,” he said. “I didn’t know what that challenge was going to be – as a coach you leap into the unknown and you kind of hope it all works out – and from my perspective it’s worked out really well. I’ve landed in a good place and who’s to say the next four years can’t be better than the last four?”

If he’s given that long then Marinos certainly look like they will have every chance of adding to the A-League and Asian Cup titles already in Postegoglou’s cabinet.


Cash causes Cerezo’s capitulation

The miserable showing of the J.League clubs in the 2018 ACL group stages provided the latest proof that money not glory is the prime motivator in modern football… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

Five months on from Urawa Reds lifting the ACL trophy after a nail-biting win over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, the J.League has come crashing back to earth with a resounding thud in continental competition, with its four representatives managing just five wins between them in 24 group stage matches.

Kawasaki Frontale – reigning J1 champions and themselves only knocked out of last year’s ACL by Urawa in the quarter-finals – exited without picking up a single victory, while Kashiwa Reysol were also eliminated at the first hurdle after managing just one win.

Kashima Antlers did make it out of their group, but Go Oiwa’s side failed to pick up a single victory at home and were booed off after the last game in front of their own fans, a 1-0 loss against Suwon last Tuesday that cost them top spot and means they must now face last year’s semi-finalists Shanghai SIPG in the Round of 16.

The most disappointing showing by a Japanese side, however, came in the form of Cerezo Osaka.

Last year’s Levain Cup and Emperor’s Cup winners were essentially the architects of their own downfall, and seemingly not bothered if they made it through to the next round or not.

“Speaking honestly, the last time we were in the ACL the club was relegated to J2, so with that fresh in our minds it’s true we are placing more emphasis on the J.League this year,” manager Yoon Jong-hwan admitted after his B- (some might argue C-) team were beaten 3-1 away to Guangzhou Evergrande last Tuesday, consigning them to third place finish in Group G.

“However, we still wanted to make it through the group stage by utilizing our full squad, and I’m disappointed we weren’t able to do that.

“We don’t have much experience in the ACL and so coming into today’s game we were stressing the fortitude of the players to withstand the pressure, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough of that. Looking at the group stage as a whole, I’d say the biggest thing that prevented us from getting through was a lack of experience.”

Yoon should be commended for having been able to deliver that line with a straight face, as it was his team selection that deprived Cerezo of the experience he felt they needed.

Football Channel 24th April, 2018

It is always going to be a tall order to beat the two-times continental champions away from home on the final match-day, but that task becomes nigh-on impossible when you leave your best eleven back in Osaka.

There were mitigating circumstances, and the schedule for all J1 teams is undeniably tight at the moment on account of the upcoming break for the World Cup.

Cerezo’s fixture list sees 11 games packed into a 35-day window between 31 March and 5 May, and it is clearly not feasible to play the same 11 players twice a week over such a punishing five-week programme.

It could also be argued that it was maybe worth the gamble to keep key players fresh for upcoming league commitments, as if Buriram United had failed to win away to Jeju United on the last day of games Cerezo would have progressed anyway.

However, this wasn’t the first time Yoon had opted to rotate his whole team, and the fact he also rested the regular eleven for Buriram away in March – a 2-0 loss which in hindsight proved more decisive than the defeat to Guangzhou, as even a draw in Thailand would have seen Cerezo through at Buriram’s expense – offers a clear sign that the ACL was not seen as a competition worthy of the club’s time.

Money-wise, that calculation is a no-brainer. Cerezo receive ¥350 million (approx. US$3.2 million) per season just for competing in J1, whereas they would need to win the entire Asian competition to get more than that (US$4m (approx. ¥430 million)).

If they were to win the J.League, meanwhile, there would be a further ¥1.85 billion (approx. US$17.2 million) pouring into the club’s coffers, and they would be in line for ¥820 million (US$7.6 million) as runners-up, ¥410 million (US$3.8 million) for coming third, and ¥180 million (US$1.7 million) for finishing fourth. Even another Levain Cup triumph would net the club ¥150 million (US$1.4 million), not far short of the US$2m (approx. ¥215 million) they’d get as runners-up in the ACL.

The disappointing reality hammered home again here, then, is that money is the driving force behind the modern game, not the old-fashioned notion that football matches are played in order to be won for glory’s sake.

Fans will (hopefully) never get as excited about well-balanced books as they do the thrill of seeing their team embark upon a history-making charge to a trophy, but until the ludicrous sums involved in football are controlled the situation won’t change, and forfeits like Cerezo’s will be repeated again and again.


Renofa riding high

Renofa Yamaguchi only narrowly avoided relegation last year, but they have been one of the fastest out of the traps in J2 this season and are showing no signs of letting up just yet… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 13th April, 2018

The J2 table is looking a little unusual after the first fifth of the season, with none of last season’s three relegated J1 sides starting at all well and the early pacesetters far from the usual suspects.

Albirex Niigata sit in 11th place after eight rounds of matches and have won just three league games – losing three of their last four – but are the best performing of the teams to have dropped through the trapdoor, with Ventforet Kofu and Omiya Ardija having only managed two wins apiece and lying 13th and 18th, respectively.

It is instead Fagiano Okayama, who finished 13th last season, leading the way on 19 points, with Oita Trinita and, most surprisingly, Renofa Yamaguchi following closely behind in second and third on 17.

Although Fagiano dropped off last season they are usually there or thereabouts in the top third of the table, while Oita also made a real challenge in that respect last year and were only ruled out of a play-off spot on the penultimate weekend. Renofa, however, had to wait until the last day of the 2017 season to absolutely guarantee their safety from relegation, and with a big turnover of players and inexperienced manager coming in in the form of former JFA Technical Director Masahiro Shimoda hopes weren’t especially high heading into this campaign.

Renofa wiped the floor with Roasso Kumamoto 4-1 on the opening weekend though, before edging Ehime FC 1-0 the following week and then getting back amongst the goals with a 5-2 win away to newly-promoted Tochigi on 11 March.

Of course, none of those sides are heavyweights of the second tier either – although both Roasso and Ehime have beaten Albirex this season, while Roasso have also taken all three points from their games against Omiya and Tokushima Vortis – and it looked like the wheels may have fallen off for Renofa in Round 4 when they slumped to a 3-0 defeat away to Mito Hollyhock.

Conceding twice late on to draw 2-2 at home to Zweigen Kanazawa in their next match wasn’t the best way to follow that loss, but they turned the tables next time out by doing the same thing to Matsumoto Yamaga and then picking up a solid 1-0 away to Montedio Yamagata.

Their first real statement came last Saturday, however, as they defeated Omiya 2-1 at the Ishin Me-Life Stadium, thanks to goals from two of their standout players this year, Ado Onaiwu and Kosuke Onose.

Football Channel, Friday 13th April 2018

That energetic, positive, and assertive pair epitomise the approach of the team, and look like they have all the right credentials – along with the likes of Daisuke Takagi, Junya Osaki, and Keita Yamashita – to follow on from the players who helped lift the club up from the local leagues to J2.

Renofa burst into the second tier two years ago with a reputation for playing progressive, attacking football under Nobuhiro Ueno, having achieved back-to-back promotions from the Chugoku League, JFL, and then J3 in each of the previous three seasons.

They didn’t rein that approach in in their first J2 campaign, causing opponents all kinds of problems with Yoshihiro Shoji and Hidetoshi Miyuki pulling the strings in the centre of the park, Takaki Fukumitsu, Yatsunori Shimaya, and Kazuhito Kishida buzzing around in the final third, and Ryuta Koike tearing up and down the right flank as they finished 12th, nine places and 14 points above the relegation zone, claiming famous 4-2 wins over both JEF United and Cerezo Osaka in the process.

As is the way, however, several of those players were then snapped up by other clubs and last year Renofa struggled to adapt to the loss of Koike (Kashiwa Reysol), Shoji (FC Gifu, now Vegalta Sendai), Fukumitsu (Cerezo Osaka), and Shimaya (Tokushima Vortis), leading to the departure of Ueno after 15 matches with the team having won just twice all season, winless in six games, and lying 20th in the rankings.

Carlos Alberto Mayor was brought in to salvage the situation and just about pulled it off, but largely at the expense of the team’s style as they become more direct under the former Avispa Fukuoka defender.

It was perhaps for that reason that his contract wasn’t extended for the current campaign, and Shimoda was brought in promising to strive for football the fans enjoyed watching, adding that while winning games was of course the priority he didn’t want to place too much focus on getting all three points at the expense of playing entertaining football.

Things have started well on both fronts, but the true test of their mettle will come over the next four games, three of which are away from home.

That run starts in Fukuoka this weekend, after which Renofa are on the road again against unbeaten Machida Zelvia – another surprise package – host Albirex, and then travel to Kofu.

If they can come through that schedule with points in the bag and confidence intact then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to make themselves at home in the upper reaches of the table – and possibly even start dreaming of another promotion.


Halilhodzic given the heave-ho

For the second time in his career Vahid Halilhodzic has been fired on the eve of a World Cup finals, and while his dismissal has long been touted the JFA’s timing defies belief… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 10th April, 2018

Vahid Halilhodzic never looked entirely at home in the stiff confines of Japanese football, and his imminent departure was rumoured several times during the three years he spent at the helm of the national team.

Even so, it is hard to consider the Bosnian’s abrupt sacking just 71 days before the Samurai Blue’s World Cup opener against Colombia as anything other than shocking, and while the dismissal itself may be justifiable the timing of it is anything but.

Since booking their place in Russia with a mature and composed 2-0 win over Australia on 31 August last year Japan have undoubtedly regressed, but the opportunities to change the man in charge had already come and gone.

“Even if it increases our chances of winning at the World Cup by only one or two percent, we had to act,” president Kohzo Tashima was quoted as saying by The Japan Times when explaining the JFA’s decision and the choice of Akira Nishino as his replacement.

“We only have two months left until the World Cup, so the new manager had to come from within the organisation. If we had done this earlier we might not have chosen Nishino, but with only two months left, in this situation, we came to this decision.”

Which begs the question: why wasn’t the decision made earlier? Tashima indicated that the manner of the recent 1-1 draw with Mali and 2-1 loss to Ukraine were the straws that broke the camel’s back, but similar issues were also evident in the drab showings against New Zealand and Haiti last October, so why didn’t the axe fall then?

Friction always seemed likely with Halilhodzic from the start, with him enjoying a fractious relationship with the Algerian media despite guiding Les Fennecs to the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup and having been fired by Cote d’Ivoire ahead of the 2010 edition (which came 108 days before the team’s first match in South Africa – early compared to his latest sacking).

But, let’s be clear, that is surely why the JFA hire foreign coaches to lead the national team: to introduce aspects lacking in the domestic game. For the association to then panic when that approach ruffles a few feathers (in the squad, media, or amongst sponsors) and then push the panic button at the eleventh hour suggests a lack of a coherent plan, and a focus on short- rather than long-term goals.

Football Channel, Tuesday 10th April, 2018

That Halilhodzic hadn’t delivered the results expected of him or, indeed, that he himself had declared – he insisted when he took over, for instance, that his aim was to improve on Japan’s FIFA ranking of 55, yet three years down the line he exits with them in exactly the same spot – are undeniable, but waiting this long to pull the trigger makes very little sense, especially when considering how far along the team’s World Cup preparations were under the 65-year-old.

“Journalists, of course, like to hear about how we will apply pressure and attack and score a lot of goals – and maybe if I say that people will say I’m a good coach,” Halilhodzic told me in a recent interview looking ahead to the finals, in which he also expressed concerns about the number of players in Europe not getting regular minutes and hinted at leaving out “players who can be starters but not on the bench”.

We will play in a Japanese way,” he continued. “I am preparing a document about the identity of Japanese football, which I will give to every player. That will be based on our qualities and weak points to tell them what kind of football we will play. We cannot play football that we are not capable of.

“We have to decide what we are going to do when we have the ball and when we don’t. Set pieces, defensively, offensively – everything. Mental aspects. Physical aspects. I will prepare a document several pages long for every player based on my observations during the past three years. I am sure the team will know very clearly what the tactics are, but whether we can do these things on the pitch or not is another matter. The arrangement is one thing and its realisation another.”

That document won’t be getting made now, and whether Japan could have realised what Halilhodzic envisioned will never be known as, 10 weeks before the World Cup finals, the arrangements must start anew.


Friendly Advice

Japan’s recent friendlies against Mali and Ukraine were the latest in some fairly uninspiring displays, and performances need to improve fast if the Samurai Blue want to make any kind of impression at the World Cup… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 30th March, 2018

Defeats and poor performances in friendly games can often be swept aside as unimportant, with regulars left out and fringe players given chances to show what they can do.

If looked at even more optimistically, these matches can be taken as vital learning experiences which help a side discover weaknesses to work on further down the line.

The problem with Japan’s loss to Ukraine on Tuesday, however, is that the issues identified have been present for a long time and no quick fixes appear available – which is concerning as, as of full time in Liege, the World Cup is just 84 days away (less as you read this).

Defensively the team lacked any real solidity at Stade Maurice Dufrasne, with Ukraine able to break through seemingly at will whenever they felt the need and support players from deep frequently arriving in acres of space and with time to pick their pass or shot.

This was in large part down Maya Yoshida’s injury – with the 29-year-old’s absence further highlighting how vital he is to this team.

None of Tomoaki Makino – who now seems Vahid Halilhodzic’s preference to partner Yoshida when everyone is fit, having played 90 minutes in both friendlies – Gen Shoji, or Naomichi Ueda had especially bad games in Belgium, but the backline was far from regimented without the Southampton man marshaling it, and the ball was given away cheaply far too often as the team tried to play its way out of defence.

Another absentee from the back four was also badly missed, with the erratic displays of Tomoya Ugajin – booked, conceded a penalty, substituted at half time versus Mali – and Gotoku Sakai – frequently targeted by Ukraine’s forwards, almost scored an own goal, struggled to get involved in the team’s attacks – highlighting just how good Hiroki Sakai has been of late.

The Marseille man not only provides a solid shield on the right flank, but his desire to tear forward and support the team’s approach play – as well as often being the one to instigate it – was severely lacking in these games, with the connections between defence and midfield and midfield and attack not impressive at all.

Indeed, that situation will be worrying Halilhodzic, particularly in the centre of the park where Makoto Hasebe was uncharacteristically loose, Hotaru Yamaguchi struggled to impose himself, and neither Ryota Morioka or Gaku Shibasaki made strong claims to be given the freer role in the middle.

Football Channel : Getty Friday 30th March, 2018

Until recently that position looked like it was Yosuke Ideguchi’s to lose, before he transferred to Leeds, was subsequently loaned to Cultural Leonessa – where he hasn’t played since mid-February – and, well, lost it.

The lack of that link between the middle of the park and the decisive final third is perhaps the matter of gravest concern as June 19th’s opener against Colombia draws closer. If Japan struggles to move the ball efficiently and create chances against steady but far from spectacular opposition such as Mali and Ukraine, how will they cope against stronger opponents when the stakes are far higher in Saransk, Ekaterinburg, and Volgograd?

It is here that Halilhodzic must shoulder some of the blame, with the Bosnian having spent the six months since Japan qualified for the finals constantly shuffling his pack and trying a host of different options, especially in the front three positions.

Nine different players have started up front for the Samurai Blue in that time (not including the EAFF E-1 Championship), and while Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Kubo, and Yuya Osako appear to remain the preferred trio none of them have done much to justify that status of late – with Osako’s penalty against New Zealand on October 6th the last time one of them found the net.

Haraguchi’s embarrassing attempt to try and win a penalty against Ukraine epitomised the current situation, suggesting the players are struggling to discover effective ways of breaking down resilient defences and letting the frustration produced by that malaise get the better of them.

All is not lost, and with the likes of Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yoshinori Muto, and Takashi Inui all still very much in the frame there are players capable of adding that something extra to the side before it’s too late.

The time for testing and tweaking is drawing to a close, though, and Halilhodzic needs to settle on his preferred options and give them the opportunities and freedom to foster some understanding.

In turn, the players trusted with the eleven starting shirts need to do better, because if recent performances continue into the World Cup it is difficult to see Japan improving on their meek showing in Brazil four years ago.


Sendai soaring

Vegalta Sendai have matched their perfect start from last year with back-to-back 1-0 wins in J1, and the players are keen to show they are a tougher proposition this season… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 9th March, 2018

The J1 season is only two games old, but not many people would have predicted the only three teams to still have perfect records at this point.

Last year’s play-off winners Nagoya Grampus have re-adjusted to life in the top flight superbly by beating Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata; Sanfrecce Hiroshima – who only survived relegation by the skin of their teeth last season – have six points thanks to victories over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Urawa Reds; while Vegalta Sendai are also riding high thanks to back-to-back 1-0s at the expense of Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo.

Vegalta actually got off to an identical start in 2017 – winning 1-0 at home to Sapporo on the opening weekend before following up with a 1-0 victory on the road to Jubilo – but they were then derailed on the third matchday when they lost 2-0 at home to Vissel Kobe, who will coincidentally be the visitors to Yurtec Stadium this Saturday.

“Last year we won the first two games but in the end we finished up where we did in the table [12th], so we know we can’t just be satisfied with what we’ve done so far and we want to do our best to show how we are different from last season,” Naoki Ishihara said after scoring the winner against Tokyo last weekend.

“Last season there were times when we weren’t able to get the second goal, didn’t use time smartly, or made mistakes when it came to closing games down and I think we have learned from that,” the 33-year-old added.

“We all have a feeling of not wanting to repeat the things we experienced last year, and I think the fact we have been able to win and keep clean sheets in both games so far shows that.”

Defensive solidity has always been a by-word for the way Sendai play, and Yasuhiro Hiraoka made it clear that the principle remains the first building block for Susumu Watanabe’s team this year.

“For us at the back that’s the main target [to keep a clean sheet], and we know that if we are able to keep doing that then we will pick up the points slowly but surely,” the former Shimizu S-Pulse man said.

However, after they lost their way a little after a strong start in 2017 Hiraoka also knows the team can’t afford to just sit back and rest on their laurels.

Football Channel, Saturday 10th March 2018

“Last year we were in the same position [after two games] and so we are aware that what happens from now is vital. This has no meaning if we aren’t able to take advantage of it in the next game.”

That hesitancy to relax is true of the team’s approach on the pitch too, and Katsuya Nagato insisted that once the foundations are in place the players want to take games to opponents as well.

“At half time [against Tokyo] we had a real drive to take the initiative and go for the win,” the Chiba native said.

“I think the fact we were able to do that here was great, and we want to keep playing in that way to make sure we are able to see out wins in similar games to this from now on too.

“As a team I think we are moving the ball better and the connections when building attacks are mostly working well. Last year it was a bit of a case of trial and error as we worked at keeping the opponents at bay, and while this year there have also been spells where we have had to persevere I think we are demonstrating the kind of football we want to play too.

“We can’t just be content with winning 1-0 though, and want to start making it 2- or 3-0 at an earlier point in games. The sooner we can do that the sooner we will be able to see games out more easily.”

The team has already gotten one monkey off its back this season, with last weekend’s win the first time they took all three points from a trip to Ajinomoto Stadium, and Ishihara thinks that achievement will give Vegalta added confidence as they look to win three league games in a row for the first time since June 2016.

“The coach mentioned that before the game [that they’d never beaten Tokyo away in the league]. We can’t do anything about past results but we spoke about changing that history, about the fact that we can change the future, and I’m pleased we were able to do so by winning here.”

The next challenge comes this weekend, when Sendai will be looking to avenge last season’s defeat to Kobe and show they are a stronger proposition this time around.

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May 2018
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