Defending a title is never easy – particularly, it seems, in the J.League…
In 2012 Kashiwa Reysol failed to win either of their first two league games, drawing at home to Yokohama F.Marinos and then losing away to Urawa Reds. The year before then-reigning-champions Nagoya Grampus endured exactly the same start, only managing to pick up a point when hosting Marinos in Round 1, before going down 3-0 to Urawa the next weekend.
This year Reds were able to get their customary win over the champions in even earlier when they travelled to Hiroshima on the opening day and overcame Sanfrecce 2-1, thanks to goals from former Purple Archer Yosuke Kashiwagi and Genki Haraguchi.
It’s just one loss and there’s plenty of the season remaining, but the omens don’t look good concerning Sanfrecce retaining the title – and no club has been able to win back-to-back J1 championships since 2009, when Oswaldo Oliveira’s dominant Kashima Antlers side collected their third consecutive shield.
The reasons for this are manifold, and the added pressures that come with wearing that gold badge on the sleeve are principal among them. Not only is there an increase in expectation on the players as the champions – whether it be applied personally, by the fans, or the media – but the motivation of the opponents each week also rises accordingly.
Ahead of the season I asked Sanfrecce coach Hajime Moriyasu about the impact that may have on his side, and he insisted that they were prepared for it and, he felt, able to overcome it.
“The opposition will have many tactics against us so it will be a tough season, I think,” he replied. “But we will keep our motivation high because the stronger the other teams become and the more they try to stop us, the more desire we will have to overcome them in the games. In that sense it’s a very exciting season.”
There can be no doubting that, although recent results suggest that the majority of the excitement lies in store for neutrals and fans of the other title-challengers, rather than those battling to keep their crown.
Even so, Mihael Mikic also maintained that Sanfrecce were fully prepared to defend their title when I asked him during last year’s Club World Cup if he was concerned that teams would now be prepared for Sanfrecce’s approach.
“We don’t change our style, we play our style and how another team plays is not our problem,” he replied. “We try to play how we play and that is simple.
“We always have two or three options. [It depends] how the other team’s playing and tries to defend, then we decide how we play.”
Another factor which comes into play, though, is the Asian Champions League. It can surely be no coincidence that each of the last three champions has not had continental commitments in the season they have claimed their maiden J1 title. The mental and physical effects of travelling to Australia, Thailand, Uzbekistan and so on are certainly not conducive to fighting fully fit, especially when considering that J.League teams tend to be made up of a best eleven and some useful-but-not-quite-as-good back-ups, rather than truly strong squads with plenty of depth. The starting line-ups of the triumphant Grampus, Reysol and Sanfrecce sides didn’t vary much, with a core of players being trusted to get the job done.
Consistency is certainly vital to achieving success, however there is much to be said for strengthening from a position of power and I can’t help but feel that it may have been something of an oversight by Sanfrecce not to recruit a higher calibre of player ahead of the 2013 season.
The only notable departure was Ryota Moriwaki, but rather than bringing in an experienced replacement Tsukasa Shiotani and Hwang Seok-ho have been entrusted to fill that sizeable gap. Striking reinforcements were also notable in their absence; what on earth happens if Hisato Sato gets injured?
Reysol and Grampus similarly settled for just the odd nip-and-tuck rather than any meaningful surgery, and the scars from those procedures are still yet to heal.
There is still an incredibly long way to go, and Sanfrecce will surely be there or thereabouts, but I can’t help but feel they may be left nursing their wounds come December.