29
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Leandro Domingues adds extra punch to Yokohama FC’s fight

Several J2 sides have made mid-season reinforcements as the battle for promotion heats up, with Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Yokohama FC the standout acquisition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2017

The J.League – seemingly unable to stick with all of its formats for more than a couple of years without feeling the need to tweak something – is set to re-jig the promotion system again from the 2018 season, meaning this year marks the last chance for sides to achieve a place in J1 via the current play-off format.

Despite last season’s play-off winners Cerezo Osaka sitting top of J1 just past the half-way point, a further hurdle is set to be introduced next year with the winner of the post-season play-offs then required to play the 16th-placed team in J1 in a promotion/relegation decider to prove they have what it takes to compete in the top flight.

The far from welcome addition to the calendar means a team could finish as third best over 42 J2 games, defeat two of its closest challengers in play-off matches, but then be forced to stay in the second tier if it fails to beat a side which was the third worst in its division over the preceding nine months.

Whether that is fair or not is a debate for another day, but the change does appear to have prompted several of this season’s promotion-hunting sides to boost their chances of being involved in the final regular play-offs – or, of course, going straight up to J1 in one of the two automatic spots – by making mid-season re-enforcements.

Six of the top nine teams have added foreign forwards since the transfer window re-opened, with current leaders Shonan Bellmare recruiting Dragan Mrdja from Omiya Ardija, Yokohama FC bringing Leandro Domingues back to Japan, fellow Brazilian Gabriel Xavier pitching up at Nagoya Grampus, Fagiano Okayama signing Kim Jong-min and Nicolas Orsini, Matsumoto Yamaga turning to the experienced Davi, and Carlos Martinez joining his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Lotina at Tokyo Verdy.

The most intriguing of these is Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Mitsuzawa, where Yokohama FC have been quietly building a solid-looking side over the past 18 months, spearheaded by the unstoppable Ibba Laajab.

The Norwegian has scored 16 of his team’s 33 goals so far in J2 in 2017 – adding to the 18 he managed in his debut season last year – and is far and away the most feared striker in the second division. Despite such impressive returns, however, there have been times when the 32-year-old has looked a little isolated in the final third, with opponents often doubling – sometimes even tripling – up on him and teammates occasionally seeming to rely on him to decide games on his own.

The capture of Leandro Domingues, then – a former J1 Player of the Year and winner of every domestic trophy in Japan – is an impressive piece of business and instantly paid dividends in his debut against V-Varen Nagasaki last weekend, with Varen coach Takuya Takagi referencing the “really big presence” the 33-year-old had on the pitch.

Indeed, it only took him six minutes to make an impact, sending a crisp ball forward to Ibba, who in turn laid it straight off for Naoki Nomura to play in Jeong Chung-geun for the opener.

“Before I received the ball I knew Ibba was in front of me and as soon as I got it I was looking to move possession on,” the former Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus man said after the 2-1 win that moved Yokohama up to fifth in the table. “I hope we can continue to combine in that way in the upcoming games too to get more and more goals.”

Football Channel_getty_29th July 2017

Ibba warmly welcomed the addition of such a talented and attack-minded player to share the decisive workload.

“Before he came in the other team was always on me – I had two or three players – but now it’s one against one I can start to take down the ball and play a little bit because they are scared of him now too, so it makes my job more easy,” he said.

“You can see already today that him, Kensuke (Sato), Zato (Takahiro Nakazato), and Nomu (Nomura) have a good relationship and that makes a lot of space for me. I haven’t trained a lot with him – I only trained two weeks with him so we don’t know each other that well yet – but I think as long as we keep training with each other we’re just going to get better and better every day and he’s going to help us a lot, for sure.”

While acknowledging that Leandro Domingues appears to adhere to the quality-not-quantity approach often preferred by Brazilian players when it comes to training, Kazuyoshi Miura is also impressed by his new teammate.

“We had a training game recently in which he made three or four scoring opportunities, and today too he also made chances, especially in the first half; I think that’s the kind of player he is, and he certainly worked harder at defending in the game than he does in training, which was a relief for me!” the 50-year-old, who made the latest extension to his oldest-J.League-appearance record as a second half substitute against Nagasaki, joked after the game.

“He’s Brazilian, so I know his style of play and the fact that when it comes to real games he is able to move up a gear or two or three, and he did that today, I think.”

Ibba is hoping that things continue in such a positive vein, and if they do he sees no reason why Yokohama can’t make a concerted push for a long-awaited return to the first division.

“In J2 you never know – that’s the fun of J2, if we keep fighting like we did today we can take first or maybe second, because they are losing too,” he said on a weekend when all of the top three and four of the top five lost.

End of season runs have led to promotion for sides in each of the last two years, with Shimizu S-Pulse winning 15 of their last 18 games last season – losing just twice in that time and winning all of their last nine games – while in 2015 Avispa Fukuoka won 14 of their last 18, losing just once and winning each of their last eight.

Yokohama themselves recently had a poor run of form with just one win in eight games and four consecutive defeats, but the victory over Nagasaki was their second in a row and Ibba is hoping they can mount a similarly strong finish with 18 games to play.

“That’s how we think – that we are done with the bad time now and that we can just attack the last 15 games or so,” he said. “But you never know in J2, it’s fighting football and you never know what happens so we just have to keep fighting and we will see after the season.”

Leandro Domingues certainly adds to their arsenal, and having him in their corner undoubtedly increases Yokohama’s chances of still being involved when the last punches are being thrown.

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