Yokohama F.Marinos look to be faltering as the season draws to a close, and there is an experienced team waiting to take advantage…
Form early on and in mid-season is all well and good, but if you can’t move through the gears smoothly on the final straight then prior efforts can all too often prove to be in vain.
That is especially true in the J.League where teams very rarely establish a commanding lead at the top of the table – with the notable recent exception of Nagoya Grampus who, in the words of Josh Kennedy, “already had a beer in our hands celebrating” with three games to go in 2010 – and a perfect, albeit extreme, example this season has been Omiya Ardija who surged to the top of J1 and set a new unbeaten record before losing 12 in 13 and plummeting down to 10th.
Picking up points throughout the season of course lays the foundations for a title challenge, but you need to have energy, guts, and concentration as the finish line approaches if you want to be the one popping champagne corks and not ruing missed chances come Christmas.
Last season eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima took 10 points from their last five games to make sure they sealed their first ever J1 crown, while their closest challengers Vegalta Sendai capitulated, claiming a measly three points from their last handful of matches.
There hasn’t really been a clear favourite this season, although Yokohama F.Marinos have probably been the most consistent side over the past seven months. Until recently, that is.
At the start of August I wrote in praise of Yasuhiro Higuchi’s team – who like Vegalta last year enjoyed a blistering start to the season – impressed with the way they had thrown off the shackles which had so often held them back in recent years.
I did, however, add a slight note of caution after I detected worrying signs in the comments of Higuchi and defensive lynchpin Yuji Nakazawa after Marinos’ swashbuckling 3-2 win over fellow title hopefuls Urawa Reds in Saitama. Rather than reveling in the way they’d loosened up at the back in order to embrace the array of attacking talent in their ranks both men paid reference to the lack of stringency in defence, and it appeared that the team was on the verge of reverting to a safety first style of play.
A close look at the formbook since then suggests my fears were well founded. In the 11 league games since Marinos downed Reds they have tightened up defensively and conceded just seven times – which would be fine were it not for the fact that they have also only managed to find the net 13 times themselves in that period. If we zoom in even closer to their most recent games the worries multiply and Shunuske Nakamura and co. have won only won of their last five games, scoring just twice and taking a meager six points from the 15 on offer.
During that time a new, vastly experienced challenger has arrived on the scene: Kashima Antlers.
Despite losing an astonishing seven away games in a row in the league at one point Toninho Cerezo’s men are now within just three points of top spot and look more than capable of claiming a first title since 2009. They thoroughly dismantled FC Tokyo in Round 28 and although they haven’t kept a clean sheet for seven games they have more than compensated by winning four of their last five games, scoring 13 in the process.
A host of intelligent, technically gifted, and, perhaps most importantly of all, unpredictable players make Antlers a hard team to contain, and in Davi and Yuya Osako they have one of the most potent strike-forces in the division. The Ibaraki club have undoubtedly picked up the scent of an eighth J1 crown, and it is up to Marinos, Reds, or reigning champions Sanfrecce to prevent that happening.
Reds, like Marinos, have rather flattered to deceive of late but remain in the hunt, but Sanfrecce are the biggest threat. They face Marinos on Saturday (when Antlers host Reds) and Antlers on the last day of the season, and those head-to-head encounters may very well determine which side make it to the tape in first place.
Slow and steady may sometimes win the race, but a burst of power at the end is often far more beneficial.