Since J2 introduced play-offs in 2012, every team promoted via the post-season decider has finished bottom of the top flight the following year. Cerezo Osaka are expected to buck that trend this season, but they have gotten off to a fairly inauspicious start… (日本語版はこちらです)
We have only had two rounds of the new J1 season, but Saturday’s game between Consadole Sapporo and Cerezo Osaka is incredibly important for both promoted sides.
Neither has managed to pick up a win from either of their first two outings in 2017, and a victory this weekend could provide just the kick-start needed to get last year’s J2 champion or play-off winner up and running.
Sapporo have lost both their openers without scoring a goal (1-0 to Vegalta Sendai and 3-0 to Yokohama F.Marinos), while Cerezo have just one point to show for their efforts after drawing 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata and losing 3-1 to Urawa Reds.
While Sapporo were widely tipped to struggle back in the top flight, Cerezo’s slow start is a bit of a surprise, and they will want to right their course sooner rather than later if they are to end the curse of the play-off champion.
Considering the quality of Cerezo’s squad – which as well as boasting current and recent national team players Hotaru Yamaguchi and Yoichiro Kakitani was boosted just before the start of the new campaign by the returning Hiroshi Kiyotake, who has established himself as Vahid Halilhodzic’s first choice in the hole for the Samurai Blue – it would be something of a surprise if they did slip straight back through the trapdoor.
A loss against Sapporo would leave them in ominous company though.
All four sides previously promoted via the play-offs have gone on to finish bottom of J1 the following season, and only one of them – Montedio Yamagata in 2015 – managed to pick up a win in their first three matches.
It took Cerezo a couple of seasons and they certainly made hard work of getting back out of J2, but they were a big fish in the second tier and now they need to adjust to their new status in the top flight.
“We know that in J1 we will spend more time in games defending,” Yamaguchi said after last weekend’s defeat in Saitama. “Whereas Urawa have very high accuracy in their passing and combinations when attacking we made too many mistakes when we went forward and gifted possession back to them many times.”
The 26-year-old cited mitigating circumstances for Cerezo’s disjointed display though, pointing out that they lack the consistency of Mihailo Petrovic’s side.
“Our coach has just changed, we’ve got some players out injured and some new players in the side, plus we are trying to play a new type of football, so of course there is a difference in the degree of completion between us and Urawa, who rarely change their players or approach.”
Kakitani offered a similar explanation, and suggested that lack of communication was partly to blame.
“The coach has just changed, whereas Urawa’s manager has been in charge for a long time,” he said. “After the game the players were talking a lot about many things, and I think it would be good if we were able to do that before the game too.”
Depsite the array of attacking talent at Yoon Jong-hwan’s disposal it was centre-back Matej Jonjic who found the net against Urawa, and the new addition from Incheon United was also keen to emphasise the gap between last year’s overall league winner and the returnees from J2.
“They are in the top three teams in the J.League, playing in the Champions League,” the Croatian said. “We just came from the second division; the difference is obvious. We have to work harder and try to work on our mistakes.
“We started too slow and I think we were missing some confidence in this game. After my goal we tried to come back, but it was too late.”
Souza agreed that Cerezo’s hesitant start was what cost them the game against Urawa.
“They’re a very high quality team so if you give them the freedom to build up like we did in the first half then that will happen,” the Brazilian said. “In the second half we pushed up a bit more and I think things went better then.
“We need to work on our defending but it’s not just that and there are many areas we need to correct. That’s not to say everything was bad though, and as well as fixing the things that need improving we also need to keep going with the areas that worked well.”
Indeed, Cerezo did cause Reds some problems in the second half, and with better finishing they could have made for a nervy end to the game for their hosts. That fact provided a source of some optimism for Souza.
“In J1 the level of the players and the tactics is higher, but we play with good connections going forward and I think we are capable of causing opponents problems.”
A fit Kiyotake would certainly improve the team in that respect, although Souza refused to build the new No.46 up too much, clearly unwilling to talk down any of the players currently in the first eleven.
“We’re a very good team and Kiyotake is a great player who plays for the national team, but that’s up to the coach to think about so please ask him,” the 28-year-old added with a grin.
In Yoon the club certainly have a boss capable of building a solid outfit, with the South Korean having worked wonders at Sagan Tosu before he was controversially fired with them top of the table in August 2014.
He has made his aims very clear this year too, and Jonjic insists the players are focused on ending the play-off jinx by finishing in the top half of the table.
“The manager already said his goal before the season started, so we just follow his ideas and his goals and let’s see where we will be after the season. He said top nine, so the club have made that goal and we will follow that and are trying our best to reach it.”
A win in what is sure to be a packed Sapporo Dome on Saturday would certainly lay down a marker on the way to that target. Defeat, however, could strike an early psychological blow to Cerezo’s ambitions.