Urawa Reds are in pole position for this year’s J1 championship but look far from convincing and have previous when it comes to throwing titles away… (日本語版はこちらです：http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/10/26/post53143/)
Anyone glancing at the current J1 table would be forgiven for thinking they had travelled back in time. This year’s title race is a flashback to the mid-to-late 2000s, when Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka, and Kashima Antlers were the big boys in the J.League, and it has been a while since the real heavyweights of the Japanese game have contested the top honour.
All three clubs have experienced problems in recent seasons – with Gamba relegated to J2 in 2012, Kashima very nearly doing likewise in the same season, and Urawa only surviving in the top flight by the skin of their teeth in 2011 – but it will surely be one of them raising the J1 shield come the end of the season (although Kawasaki Frontale could sneak up on the rails and finally shake off their always-the-bridesmaid tag).
However, as always in the J.League no one team is surging towards the championship and while Reds have a seemingly comfortable five-point cushion at the top of the table they have looked anything but convincing in recent weeks.
After a fantastic spell between Rounds 9 and 25 when they lost just twice in 17 games the wheels are starting to fall off and they have been victorious in just one of their last four league games, all of which were against teams battling at the other end of the table. Furthermore, that triumph was against Tokushima Vortis, a fixture which, with all due respect, has been a free pass for opponents in J1 this year.
Is history repeating itself, then? Are Urawa set for another spectacular collapse, a la 2007? Possibly, but in order for that to happen someone needs to take advantage of Mihailo Petrovic’s side’s jitters.
None of the teams who comprised the top four heading into Round 29 were able to win on Wednesday night, and four of the current top five, including Reds, have won just two of their last five games – the same number of victories as relegation strugglers Shimizu S-Pulse and Cerezo Osaka.
The anomaly in the chasing pack is Gamba Osaka who have been in scintillating form since the restart after the World Cup, winning 12 of their 15 games and surging up from 16th to 2nd. Kenta Hasegawa’s side suffered a rare defeat to Kashiwa Reysol in midweek which leaves them five points adrift, but they still look the most likely side to pip Urawa to the post – especially as they take Reds on head-to-head next month.
“It’s a difficult number [of points] to overturn but we still have to play Urawa,” Hasegawa said after the loss to Reysol. “Instead of looking at what they’re doing our first priority has to be to focus on winning our next game at home and making sure we don’t lose two in a row.”
Takashi Usami agreed that focusing on how the sides around them are getting on is not of any benefit to Gamba.
“Until now we have been playing without any consciousness of what other teams are doing and just focusing on the game in front of us, and we’ll keep doing that from now on too,” he said on Wednesday.
Yasuhito Endo was characteristically relaxed after the loss to Reysol, and while his coach and star striker were hesitant to reference Urawa’s situation Japan’s record cap holder was happy to shift the pressure onto the team leading the way with five games to go.
“I think the team sat at the top will be feeling it the most,” he said. “Gamba just have to apply it, we don’t really feel any pressure. We just have to keep applying pressure to Urawa and if they start to feel it then that’s great.
“Kashima still have a chance too, I think. But there are two matches before we play Urawa so we have to make sure we take six points from those games so we are able to go and take Reds on properly.”
The one thing which may curtail Gamba’s advance is the fact that they are also still going strong in both cup competitions, although Hasegawa was hesitant to use their congested fixture list as any kind of early excuse.
”The Nabisco Cup is just the final so I don’t think it will have an especially big impact,” he said. “The Emperor’s Cup semi-finals take place within two or three days in the same week so may have an impact, I’m not sure. In October we have played six games so far (up until the 22nd) and in September we played seven games. I think the team is toughening up from playing back-to-back matches. With that in mind, November isn’t going to bring so many games and one way or another I want the team to fight together as one to weather the storm.”
For Endo the intense schedule and potential for a treble was something to look forward to rather than be concerned about.
“I think it will act as a kind of motivation,” the veteran, who already has one J.League title, one Nabisco Cup, two Emperor’s Cups, and one ACL winner’s medal to his name, said. “I don’t really feel any sense of tiredness. After the next game we move to a pace of one game per week so on the contrary I think there are many things to be excited about.”
While the future may be bright for Gamba, any slip up by Reds against bitter rivals Kashima tonight could leave them wishing they could turn back time as it steadily runs out.