Shimizu S-Pulse have been ever-present in J1 since its inception in 1993, but could they be slipping through the trapdoor this season…? (日本語版はこちらです： http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/11/12/post55469/ )
In recent years there have been a fair few surprise relegations from J1, with FC Tokyo, Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata all unexpectedly dropping down to the second division for a season (or maybe more in Jubilo’s case).
This year Cerezo Osaka are on the brink of perhaps the most spectacular capitulation in recent times, four points from safety with three games to play despite having come into the season as title favourites. While the capture of Diego Forlan has backfired spectacularly for the pink half of Osaka and earned them the majority of the shocked headlines though, there is another, far more historied, J1 big boy teetering on the edge.
Shimizu S-Pulse have been a permanent member of the top-flight since 1993 and are one of just four of the J.League’s founding clubs to have never played in J2 (along with Kashima Antlers, Yokohama F.Marinos, and Nagoya Grampus). That proud record is dangerously close to being shattered this year though, with Jubilo’s Shizuoka neighbours in need of at least one more win – probably more – from their final trio of games to stay up.
All seemed lost after the recent 1-0 defeat away to Yokohama F.Marinos, the result leaving Katsumi Oenoki’s men in the bottom three and the manner of it suggesting that there was no fight left in them. There was very little in the way of cohesion, either defensively or going forwards, and Oenoki cut a nervous and uninspiring figure in the post-game press-conference, shuffling in and looking like he may burst into tears at any moment.
Just four days later they grabbed a dramatic late win over Albirex Niigata which lifted them above the dotted line though, and although they fell back beneath it again that weekend after losing 3-1 to Sanfrecce Hiroshima the great escape was back on after their most recent game, a ding-dong back-and-forth away to Kawasaki Frontale which again ended with last minute joy as substitute Kazuya Murata struck an excellent winner at the death.
Speaking after that game defender Dejan Jakovic was visibly relieved that S-Pulse’s fate was back in their own hands.
“I don’t even know what to say,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s a big performance from us. We keep conceding early goals, but we fought back and then towards the end we were content with just getting out of there with a draw. We ended up stealing a big, big win to get us out of the gutter so I’m really excited.”
The J.League is now on a three week break which could take the wind out of Shimizu’s sails, although Jakovic pointed out that the team has struggled to build any steady form at any point throughout the season anyway.
“The thing is we’re up and down, so it doesn’t mean that if we play next week that we’re going to have this kind of performance,” he said. “We have this long break and it’s good to know that we’ve come out with a win and can breathe a little bit. Now we can focus and work on Nagoya, who we played away and had a good result against in the Emperor’s Cup. We have time now to see what we have to do.”
The precariousness of the situation means any more false steps could alter the mood in the camp again though, and a win over Grampus at Nihondaira is a must.
“It’s obviously not over,” Jakovic admitted. “There are some good teams still left and we’ve just got to take care of business at home. There are two games [at home] – I think we can do it.”
One win may not be enough to make sure of a 23rd J1 campaign, but with all of the teams in the relegation dogfight playing at least one of their fellow strugglers in the run-in three points could be enough to scrape to safety.
The most nail-biting scenario could see things taken to the last day of the season, when Cerezo travel to Omiya Ardija and Shimizu host Ventforet Kofu. With Cerezo the lowest placed battler (in 17th with 30 points) and Ventforet, courtesy of a recent four-game unbeaten run and two wins in a row, riding high (relatively speaking) in 13th on 36 those two could already know their fates by then though, leaving S-Pulse (currently 15th), Omiya (16th), and Vegalta Sendai (14th) desperately trying to avoid the last relegation spot.
Leaving things in the hands of fate doesn’t appeal to Jakovic, who was adamant that S-Pulse want to take the initiative.
“There’s three teams that we’re competing against and obviously you want to get all the points you can; you don’t want to leave it to the other teams to decide your fate. I know S-Pulse has never been relegated to J2 since they started so we need to keep it that way.”