Statements of intent

Machida Zelvia and Fagiano Okayama have both started the 2022 J2 season solidly, and if either can emerge victorious from their encounter this weekend their burgeoning campaign will be served another early boost… (日本語版)

It is obviously far too early in the season to be paying any serious attention to league tables, but this weekend’s clash between Machida Zelvia and Fagiano Okayama could provide an early indication as to whether either, or both, could be set to make a realistic push for promotion to J1 this year.

Each side has taken a solid seven points from the first nine available to them, with Zelvia claiming back-to-back wins over Iwate Grulla Morioka (1-0) and Zweigen Kanazawa (2-1) after a frustrating 0-0 on the opening day of the season against FC Ryukyu, and Fagiano sandwiching a 1-1 with Tokushima Vortis between victories over Ventforet Kofu (4-1) and Tochigi SC (1-0).

These starts represent improvements on last season’s early knockings for each club – Machida only won two of their first seven games in 2021, while Okayama claimed all three points just twice in their first nine J2 matches – and although each are at different stages of development under their respective managers both have plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

Had there been play-offs last year Machida would have been involved after finishing fifth, for instance, and the aim in the third year of Ranko Popovic’s second spell in charge of the club is to at least replicate that success this time around. The only key player to have moved on from last term is Kaina Yoshio, who returned to parent club Yokohama F.Marinos, and although some of them arrived later in the window than Popovic would have liked the signings of Wiliam Popp, Hijiri Onaga, Shunya Suganuma, Kazuma Yamaguchi, and Vinicius Araujo add some excellent depth in key positions for the team this year.

Perhaps more important than the new faces, however, is the fact that Taiki Hirato is still in possession of the No.10 shirt for Zelvia. After impressing while on loan from Kashima Antlers in 2017 and 2018 Hirato returned to Ibaraki at the start of the 2019 season, but with chances at a premium at the J1 giant he headed back to Machida on a full transfer in the summer of that year and has established himself as one of J2’s most reliable performers since.

As well as orchestrating so much of the team’s attacking play and posing a serious threat from set-pieces the 24-year-old has also found the net 21 times since rejoicing Machida, with two of those being critical contributions this season as he netted the winner against Grulla and equaliser in last weekend’s comeback away to Kanazawa.

The presence in the squad of veteran strikers Yuki Nakashima, Dudu, and Chong Tese – whose composed finish sealed all three points in the last minute against Zweigen – as well as new arrival Vinicius Araujo, who notched 14 times for Montedio Yamagata last year, means Hirato has plenty of talent around him to tee up, while if fellow Kashima alumni Yamaguchi can rediscover the form he showed for Mito Hollyhock in 2020 then Hirato will have somebody to share the creative burden with as well.

Fagiano are also blessed with a solid attacking line-up in 2022, and although Takashi Kiyama didn’t have the best of times with Vegalta Sendai during his brief J1 sojourn in 2020 he has shown time and again that he is more than capable of building teams to be reckoned with in the second tier.

The 50-year-old has led each of JEF United (2012), Ehime FC (2015), and Montedio (2019) to the play-offs, and upon being handed the reins at the City Light Stadium this season he was backed in the transfer market as well, with Fagiano adding plenty of quality to the solid-yet-unspectacular side that idled to an 11th-place finish under Kenji Arima last year. While Machida prioritised consistency of personnel coming into the new campaign, Fagiano opted – or perhaps were forced somewhat – to freshen things up, with half of last year’s regulars moving on and a host of new faces arriving.

The new centre back pairing of Jordy Buijs and Yasutaka Yanagi leaps out immediately, for example – and not just because they stand at 186cm and 188cm, respectively. Dutchman Buijs has cut a dominating figure at each of V-Varen Nagasaki, Tokushima, and, most recently, Kyoto Sanga, and scored an excellent free-kick to deliver the recent win over Tochigi, while Yanagi is not only an imposing presence in his own penalty area but also a threat at the other end, registering 14 times over the past two years for Tochigi and even ending last year as their top scorer with eight goals.

Okayama do also have some actual strikers to take care of the goalscoring too, and as well as doing very well to keep hold of Australia international Mitch Duke over the off-season they added Tiago Alves from Gamba Osaka – with the Brazilian introducing himself in sensational fashion with three goals so far, including a debut brace and wonder-goal from his own half.

The early signs have been just as impressive between the defence and attack too, with Okayama’s new-look three-man midfield offering excellent balance in the transitions. Former Shimizu S-Pulse man Yosuke Kawai’s experience is supplemented by the energy and composure of rookies Haruka Motoyama and Yudai Tanaka, neither of whom look at all phased at being thrown straight into the mix by Kiyama.

Their battle with Leo Takae and Kaishu Sano – one of the second tier’s best midfield pairings – will be yet another thing to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game, which is sure to be a terrific battle at Machida Gion Stadium.

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