Heading into the final round of J1 matches Sagan Tosu are in pole position for a place in next year’s Asian Champions League. Nobody foresaw that at the start of the year, but they are well worth their lofty position…
If they were a Kanto club Sagan Tosu would surely be the story of the season.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai’s unforeseen title challenges have deservedly claimed a lot of column inches, but if we’re being brutally honest neither of them have had the aura of a championship team about them this year.
Both sides have been about the same standard as they were in 2011, and their status as the top two has been as much about other teams’ poor form as their own relative consistency.
Tosu’s achievement, however, should not be underestimated, and the manner in which they have adapted to the first division is a credit to everyone at the club.
Most people – myself included – were convinced that they would only be paying a fleeting visit to the top-flight, with no recognised stars and very few players with any J1 experience on their books, but they got off to a terrific start and never looked back.
They were unbeaten in their first seven home games in the league – not even conceding a goal until the sixth of those against Vegalta Sendai when they drew 1-1. Sanfrecce also came to town during that terrific spell and the Purple Archers were beaten 1-0.
I headed down to Kyushu at the end of March – in part because I wanted to take in a game at the Best Amenity Stadium at some point during the season and didn’t think Sagan would be keeping up their impressive start for much longer – and was hugely impressed.
The football they played was high-tempo, organized and clinical, and in Kim Min-woo I felt they had one of the most impressive wide players I’d seen live for some time. Even from left back – where he started that day against Vissel Kobe – he constantly caused problems and summed up the team’s confident, assertive approach.
Yohei Toyoda, too, is a striker who has to be a shoo-in for the team of the year. Like his club the 27-year-old hasn’t received the coverage he deserves this season, and I can’t help but feel that if he were 194cm and white he may even have earned a call-up to the national team to rejoin the teammates with whom he travelled to the 2008 Olympics.
I fell for the Best Amenity stadium instantly, as well. It’s practically in the train station, doesn’t have a running track, has nice steep stands that are close to the pitch, and the club’s enthusiastic, slightly cross-looking, and unimaginatively monikered mascot “Wintosu” was enthusiastically high-fiving the fans as they entered.
My only complaint, actually, is that not enough supporters were being greeted, and their home crowds have been disappointingly low. I appreciate Tosu is only a small town, but they have managed to get around the 20,000 mark a couple of times this season and should be trying to do so more often.
After the game against Vissel head coach Yoon Jong-hwan also left a positive impression, and it’s clear that he’s a man who commands respect from his players.
While understandably not wanting to overhype his team so early on, it was clear that he knew he had a group of players willing and able to put his style of football into practice, and that was also evident when I saw them later in the season beating Gamba Osaka 3-2 from 2-0 down, and against FC Tokyo, when their gung-ho approach brought about the opposite luck, with a 3-2 defeat from a 2-0 lead.
The “one game at a time” cliché is oft-trotted out but in Tosu’s case it rings true. The only time they’ve lost consecutive games was when they suffered a minor blip in September and October, losing three in a row, but they remedied that with a hat-trick of wins in their next three games.
After the Vissel game Kim was cautious but did let slip that a lofty finish was not beyond his thinking.
“Where we are now has no meaning,” he said. “If we are here [in fifth] when the season has finished it will be a fantastic achievement but there’s a long way to go and many games to play.”
Now there is just one left and fifth is a realistic, perhaps even understated, target.