The end of this season will see the final team promoted to J1 afforded that right by virtue of an English Chamionship style play-off. Well, sort of…
Last summer I wrote about the introduction of a play-off system to J2 and how I thought it would hugely benefit the division.
Just past the halfway point of the 2012 season it looks like I was right, with far more teams in-and-around the key positions this year.
After 21 games (the new midpoint after the division grew to 22 teams) the distance between first and 11th was just 10 points, while, currently, after 24 games, the top 10 are separated by that margin.
At the halfway stage last year (19 games) Consadole Sapporo, in 6th, were the last team to be within 10 points of the leaders. Tosu, who eventually earned promotion with Consadole were just one point further back.
Whereas teams may not have overly rated their chances with only three places up for grabs in 2011, the fact that twice as many spots for potential promotion are available this year has resulted in almost double the number of teams being in striking distance of J1.
It seems that the chasing pack are picking up a stronger scent of potential success.
Of course that is not the only explanation, and it could quite reasonably be argued that the openness of the division is also down to no one side being able to establish themselves as the team to beat.
I’ve seen a fair few J2 matches this season and while the standard is obviously below that of the first division I’ve enjoyed most of them.
The games increasingly offer up good entertainment, although this is not always because of especially good play but often because of the opposite.
Decision-making is absolutely vital in football and far too frequently at the lower levels attacks break down or chances are afforded to the opposition because a player makes the wrong one.
The best example of this came when two of the sides jostling at the top of the table, Tokyo Verdy and JEF United, came head to head last month.
JEF were the better side but made consistently poor choices, while Verdy were much sharper and efficient when they had the ball and deservedly took the three points.
A couple of weeks later the tables had turned, with JEF the far more incisive team in their home game against Kyoto Sanga.
The visitors bossed possession but couldn’t make it count, and before Takeshi Oki’s team knew what had happened they were 3-0 down.
Takeshi Okada’s former right-hand man said after that defeat that his team had “collapsed” after conceding the first goal, and despite a spirited late revival they still returned to Kansai on the wrong end of a 3-2 defeat.
That wasn’t the first time they’d had that feeling, and I have also seen them leave it too late against Gainare Tottori and Yokohama FC this year, as well as conceding a late, late goal to lose at Shonan Bellmare.
A lack of composure has seen a talented group of players too easily affected by the flow of the game when steadier heads may well have kept calm to claim the win.
It is not only the players who have been making peculiar decisions, and although the J.League should be commended for having introduced the play-offs they, too, have also made some slightly strange calls with regards to the format.
Giving the higher ranked teams a slight advantage by hosting the one-legged semi-finals at their stadiums is understandable – if a little unfair – but deciding to award the victory to that side if the game ends in draw is bizarre.
The final, too, will be contested in that manner – albeit at a neutral venue – which not only weighs the tie heavily in the favour of the team that finishes 3rd (or 4th, if an upset takes place in one of the semi-finals) but also raises the possibility of a fairly dour showpiece.
One team will know that a draw is enough to ensure their promotion and so may very well enter the game with a suitably unadventurous mindset; in short, like England.
However, all the teams know this is how things will be decided so are well aware of the value of finishing as high as possible.
Hopefully that will ensure that the action remains this close and unpredictable right up until the final exchanges.