Business picking up

After six months of games in hand and provisional tables the J1 standings finally reflect the true state of play, and all signs point towards a thrilling climax to the 2021 season… (日本語版)

For perhaps the first time all season we have a J1 table that actually tells us something about what there is to play for, and who’s playing for it, in the Japanese first division.

Just as in 2020, Covid-19 has caused huge disruption to the calendar this year – both as a result of outbreaks causing fixture postponements and also the centralised ACL group stage requiring Japan’s participants to front-load their domestic schedules – meaning the standings have been skewed in various directions since pretty much the third week of the season.

At one point Kawasaki Frontale were 18 points clear on paper and seemingly cruising towards consecutive titles, for instance, while just a few weeks ago Gamba Osaka were slumped down 19th place and looking like they had a real battle for survival on their hands.

That of course didn’t reflect the reality of the situation and vastly different number of matches played by each club, and the ironing out of those creases over the Olympic break has presented us with a very different picture of proceedings heading into the final third of the campaign. 

Frontale are now top by just a single point as a result of Yokohama F.Marinos’ extraordinary run of form – unbeaten in 13 with just two defeats all season – while Gamba picked up enough points in their make-up matches to lift them up into the almost-safe region of lower mid-table alongside neighbours Cerezo Osaka on 30 points.

A proper relegation dogfight looks to be brewing beneath them though, with Oita Trinita, Yokohama FC, Vegalta Sendai, Tokushima Vortis, Shimizu S-Pulse, Shonan Bellmare, and Kashiwa Reysol all embroiled in the battle to avoid being one of the four teams demoted to J2 come December.

Yokohama FC were bottom of that pile for a long time but were certainly proactive about turning things around in the summer transfer window, bringing in a handful of new foreign signings – including one of Germany’s goalkeepers at Tokyo 2020, Svend Brodersen, which first impressions suggest was a very shrewd piece of business – and their win over Gamba on Wednesday served the huge psychological boost of moving them off the foot of the table.

Whether they will have enough in the tank to complete a great escape remains to be seen, but with the teams around them struggling to put together runs of form the seven points to safety don’t look insurmountable if Tomonobu Hayakawa’s side can keep grinding out the odd win here and there.

Indeed, things are incredibly tight in the lower third of the table with only 10 points separating the bottom seven sides, and as the finish line draws within range and the pressure begins to build it will come down to which sides are best able to hold their nerve and remain focused on the job at hand.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Avispa Fukuoka, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, meanwhile, occupy a kind of no-man’s land in the middle of the rankings – too far back to make a push for the ACL but with enough points in the bank to be all-but assured of a place in the top flight next year – and above them there’s a six-team mini-league in progress, with competition for the third and final Champions League spot incredibly fierce.

Here, too, teams are packed together like commuters on the Marunouchi Line (despite the state of emergency, they’re still very much there), and setting aside outside bet FC Tokyo on 39 points, the handful of Urawa Reds (44), Sagan Tosu (44), Kashima Antlers (44), Nagoya Grampus (46), and Vissel Kobe (47) are all bunched within three points of each other between third and seventh place.

Sagan aside – who are very much punching above their weight considering their current financial difficulties – all of these clubs will have come into the season targeting at least a place in Asia’s premier club competition next year, and so we should be set for a thrilling back-and-forth battle over the coming weeks as they duke it out for the one berth remaining.

The reason there are only enough spoils for one victor in that contest is because way out at the top of the rankings and going mano a mano for the J1 shield we find reigning champions Frontale and the team they dethroned last year, Marinos.

The league leaders have been absolutely sensational again this season, averaging over two goals per game and only conceding 17 times so far on their way to 63 points. They are, however, in the midst of an uncharacteristic dip in form and followed draws against Reysol and Sanfrecce with a 1-0 loss to Avispa in midweek, driving home just how important Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma were to the side after both completed moves to Europe over the summer.

Marinos also lost a key figure just before Tokyo 2020, although if things were supposed to come tumbling down after Ange Postecoglou’s switch to Celtic nobody appears to have told the players. They haven’t missed a beat and have won five and drawn one under new boss Kevin Muscat, overtaking Frontale on goals scored after finding the net 14 times in their last three games and setting up what is sure to be an absolute humdinger of a title race over the coming weeks.

The ebb and flow of all teams playing matches in tandem is part of what usually makes league competition so enjoyable, and while the disruption of the past year or so has been unavoidable here’s hoping some semblance of normality can be resumed in that respect next season. The last 12 rounds of 2021 will serve up a whole range of drama, but how nice it would have been to have had nine months of twists and turns instead of just three.

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August 2021

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