04
Nov
11

Raising the stakes

Three teams are neck and neck as we head towards the final straight of the 2011 J.League season. With Kashiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus matching wins with wins it looks like being a case of who blinks first…

Here we go again. The climax of the J.League season is upon us and as is almost always the case (last year excepted) it is looking like going right down to the wire.

Heading into the last four games things are perfectly poised with three teams neck and neck for the title.

Kashiwa Reysol have the narrowest of advantages in pole position, but with Gamba Osaka two points behind and Nagoya Grampus just one further back the slightest slip-up by anybody could prove fatal.

All three teams have proven they have the ability – never losing two games in a row, recording the most victories in the division, and, along with free-scoring, free-conceding Cerezo Osaka, scoring the most goals – but now it comes down to more than that.

When the chips are down, guts are crucial.

In the last round Grampus showed they have the stomach for a fight, and after their victory over Omiya Ardija Dragan Stojkovic was particularly pleased with his players’ ability to keep going.

“For us the most important thing is that we found the energy, we found our belief to give us the result and to bring three points home,” an exhausted Pixi said after watching his side go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down before eventually triumphing 3-2.

“I really wanted to play with all the cards on the table, nothing in my pocket and everything on the table. I think this tactic and this idea gave us the result.”

Reysol didn’t fold under pressure either and managed to keep their noses just in front, refusing to panic after their old-boy Tadanari Lee gave Sanfrecce a second half lead in Hiroshima and coming back to win 3-1.

That was the sixth time this season that the Sun Kings had recorded a victory after conceding first, and when I spoke to Hiroki Sakai a couple of days before the match he mentioned how important that ability had been to the side.

“If you compare it with last year we didn’t get many wins from losing positions,” he said. “This year, even if we are losing I still feel as though we can win the game though, and this gives confidence to the players.”

After their comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Grampus in Round 29 Gamba faced a tricky fixture against Montedio – a team fighting for their J1 place and which Akira Nishino’s men hadn’t beaten on either of their previous trips to Yamagata.

Their confidence and composure showed no signs of having been dented though – even without their ace, Yasuhito Endo – and their emphatic 5-0 win upped the ante in the title race.

Grampus may have been forced to go all in against Ardija, but when you have their strength-in-depth – the double change that turned things in their favour saw Kensuke Nagai and Mu Kanazaki introduced – that was not particularly risky.

Utilising the fullness of their impressive squad was key to Nagoya being crowned champions last season, and the fact that they were able to last the pace then should serve them will this time around.

Reysol also secured a championship last season though, so can see Grampus in that respect.

However, both teams wrapped their titles up with games to spare so the action wasn’t quite as intense last year as it is right now.

Gamba, too, are more than used to being in and around the top table come the final stages, and have only finished outside of the top three once in the past seven seasons.

Impressive as this is, they have claimed the jackpot just once.

Furthermore, while they held their nerve impressively amongst five hopefuls in 2005, that title was effectively sealed by a last-gasp Yasuyuki Konno goal for FC Tokyo against Cerezo who were on the cusp of the championship themselves.

So, it really is nigh-on impossible to choose a favourite and we are set for a gripping ride all the way to the finish.

My tip to claim the pot? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion about one of them but as my dark-horse (Omiya) and top-scorer (Carlao) predictions go to show, I think it’s probably best for all concerned that I don’t show my hand this time.


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