The J2 season has almost concluded and all that’s left are the play-offs to determine the final team to gain promotion to J1. Does Newton’s law mean that the celebrations will be short-lived, though?
We now know the sides who are going to be playing – or are in with a chance of playing – in J1 next year, but after a year of striving to be in exactly that position is this actually where the fun stops for the clubs in the top six of J2?
I am already on record as backing the play-offs for a place in the first division, and think that providing more teams with a realistic target of getting into the top flight should help the level throughout the league increase.
Just as importantly, from a viewing and entertainment perspective, the play-offs keep the league interesting. Or should that be “have made” it interesting?
Up until this season most sides would by his stage of the year have been in autopilot for around two months – either resigned to the fact that they’re a bit crap and are going to finish near the bottom, or are not quite as good as they’d hoped and don’t have a chance of finishing third.
This year there are very few clubs who have been able to sleepwalk their way through the final quarter of the season though, with everybody still having the carrot of the play-offs just about in sight, or with the ominous creaking of the trapdoor down to the JFL audible behind them.
While the desire to get out of or stay in the division (depending on which exit you’re aiming for or looking to avoid) is strong, however, things on the other side are not always as you’d expected.
There were only three seasons that the third-placed team in J2 automatically earned a seat at the top table, but in each of them they came crashing straight back down the next year.
Shonan Bellmare were the first to do so, plummeting through the hatch in 2010 with just 16 points from their 34 J1 games.
After the J.League’s expansion to two divisions that was only their second appearance in the top flight, and their previous stint was similarly as short when they dropped into the newly-formed J2 at the first time of asking in 1999.
They have an impressive young coach and have been reasonably consistent this season, but are they any better equipped now to cope with the big boys?
Yokohama FC, too, only have one previous year’s experience in J1 and it was as bruising as Shonan’s, also producing just 16 points. They hardly look ready to improve on that dismal performance – or those of Consadole Sapporo this year or Avispa Fukuoka last – and perhaps another year or so developing some decent young players under Motohiro Yamaguchi in J2 would be better for the club long-term.
Even runaway champions Ventforet Kofu are not in any way assured of an easy ride back up in J1, and have never previously been able to manage more than two consecutive seasons there.
Much may depend for them on ridiculously-prolific striker Davi; can they keep hold of him and, if they do, will he be able to replicate his white-hot form against better defences?
Oita Trinita must also be wary of trying to do too much too soon, and they won’t need reminding what happened last time they tried to run before they could walk. A fourth-place finish in J1 and triumph in the Nabisco Cup sparked an attempt to jump up to the elite level but in choosing to twist rather than stick they went bust. Almost literally.
Then there are Kyoto Sanga and JEF United. Both have enjoyed prolonged spells in J1 – with varying levels of success – and could perhaps be the two best placed to stay up this time.
Even so, while Sanga do have an experienced coach and wealth of young talent they have been far from dominant in the second tier, and JEF’s air of ‘we-don’t-really-belong-here’ has been exactly what’s kept them in J2 the past three years. Confidence is vital, but complacency bordering on arrogance helps nobody. Except the opposition.
Success stories such as Vegalta Sendai, Sanfrecce Hirshima and Sagan Tosu show the gap can be bridged, but it might equally be the case that the promotion parties for three of these clubs are their last celebrations for a while.