After the first round of J.League matches had concluded it was easy to see why it is likely to be the same teams chasing the title in 2011.
None of the title contenders have had an easy start to the J.League season, but while they have not had everything their own way they have shown exactly why they are the teams who will be challenging for the championship come December.
Gamba, for instance, had a difficult opening match against local rivals Cerezo – which came soon after both teams had been in ACL action in midweek – but they demonstrated tremendous resilience to recover not just from that rarest of thing – a missed Yasuhito Endo penalty – but also to re-take the lead almost instantly after Cerezo had got themselves back in the game.
Such recoveries were also on display in both Kashima and Nagoya, with the league’s other two heavyweights being frustrated on their own patches by the resilient and adventurous Omiya Ardija and Yokohama F. Marinos.
While defeats looked to be on the cards for both teams as the clock ran down, they both managed to salvage crucial points at the death though. These last-gasp goals not only ensured the sides didn’t start the season with a loss, but they will also have served as psychological boosts which will benefit the teams in two ways.
Firstly, they themselves will take great confidence from their refusal to give up, and the realization that they always have a goal in them will serve them well as the season progresses.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, opponents will always have lingering doubts in the backs of their minds about the possibility of securing a win against either side.
Omiya had the lead three times against Antlers, and Marinos were beating Nagoya until the fifth minute of injury time but both teams took just a point back home with them instead of three.
This is no coincidence, and the results came about largely because the best teams always know how to adjust to their current set of circumstances.
Before the season kicked off Daiki Iwamasa and Oswaldo Oliveira were both asked if it was strange to come into the season not as defending champions. Their answers demonstrated the resolve that drove Kashima to three successive championships.
Iwamasa put a positive spin on the situation, saying, “In one respect it’s good that we can start the season as a challenger. We’re at a point where we have to be modest and humble about ourselves so it’s good.”
Oliveira, meanwhile, made it clear that his side must now react to the position they find themselves in, “(It’s) not strange. It really was a disappointment, but we have to know how to deal with this situation.
He then continued by exhibiting the enjoyment he gets out of having to adapt in this manner. “I love to prepare football teams, I love to see players growing and doing their best. This is what keeps me motivated.”
In a sense he approaches each season as if it were a puzzle, and relishes each new challenge as he looks to rearrange and fit the pieces accordingly to achieve success.
He pays fantastic attention to detail, and on the rare occasion that the pieces don’t fall into place, he does his utmost to work out why and how best to remedy the situation.
“We can see numbers of the last J.League (season): our defence was the best, we were the team who lost the least number of games, (but) we drew 12 matches – at least 6 of them we should win. So I think this made the difference for us. What you have to do now is try to identify the points and work on it.”
Dragan Stojkovic displayed a similar flexibility last season, and was rightfully proud of the fact that his team never lost back-to-back matches in the league in 2010.
Of course, a home draw on the opening day of the season would not have been what Oliveira was after before the game with Omiya – as his frustration after full time showed.
Teams from lower down the division will always cause the odd upset though, and after a little time to cool off he will almost certainly see this point as one gained rather than two lost, and make his next move accordingly.
Such sense of purpose is what sets the best apart from the rest.