Leading from the front

Kawasaki Frontale flattered to deceive once again in Asian competition this year, but their upcoming schedule leaves them well placed to make a real push for a third consecutive J1 title… (日本語版)

It feels as though Kawasaki Frontale have been sat permanently astride the J1 rankings since Covid-19 started to wreak havoc around the world, and for the past two-and-a-bit years Toru Oniki’s men have been a class apart in the J.League.

They may have sealed their maiden title in 2017 by only going top for the first time at the end of the final round of games, and 2019 did see them slip momentarily back into the pack to finish 10 points behind eventual champions Yokohama F.Marinos, but since the fourth round of the 2020 season Frontale have been almost permanently in possession of first place as they have established themselves as the dominant power in Japanese football

Kawasaki have of course had to fend off the occasional challenger during that spell, but even as key players have departed for pastures new in Europe they have managed to keep playing assertively from a position of power, coping admirably with the pressure of being the hunted and ultimately protecting their leads with relative ease to celebrate back-to-back championships twice in half a decade.

Last week they returned from their AFC Champions League duties in Malaysia in an unfamiliar position, however, sitting in second place and five points adrift of a resurgent Kashima Antlers.

Not only that, but Frontale were smarting from another chastening experience in continental competition, struggling yet again to transfer their J.League swagger to Asia and failing to make it out of Group I after winning just three of their six matches – the only one of this year’s J.League representatives not to progress to August’s Round of 16.

This latest collapse in the ACL will certainly have smarted, and everyone at the club will know that for all their domestic dominance glory further afield is needed to truly cap this generation’s dynasty and move the side from Todoroki up into the next bracket as a giant of the Asian game.

Set against that backdrop then, Saturday’s game away to Shimizu S-Pulse looked like a potential banana skin, with Kawasaki needing to shake of their disappointment and reacclimatise and Hiroaki Hiraoka’s men unbeaten in five games and full of confidence after an impressive 4-1 win away to Shonan Bellmare in their previous match.

Well, on paper at least. In reality, Kawasaki slipped straight back into their effortless J.League groove and moved ahead inside the first quarter of an hour after some characteristically intricate build-up play between Yasuto Wakizaka and Akihiro Ienaga ended with the former rifling home at Shuichi Gonda’s near post.

Wakizaka then turned provider just past the half hour mark as he floated a delicious ball to the back post for Marcinho to head home, and with an hour left to play the visitors already had the luxury of being able to take the sting out of the game and preserve some energy and three more precious points – racking up 69 percent of possession in the first half and making almost twice as many passes as the hosts (378 to 194) with 89 percent accuracy.

That completion rate was maintained over the 90 minutes as a whole, and although Shimizu had a few potshots at goal Frontale’s victory never looked like it was in any serious danger. At the same time, Kashima were falling to a surprise 3-0 defeat away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to see their lead at the summit reduced instantly to just two points, with Frontale also having a game in hand.

With only a third of the season played it would of course be foolish to start speculating with any real conviction about favourites for the title, but a quick glance at the upcoming fixtures suggests Kawasaki have a real opportunity to seize the initiative and once again situate themselves as the leaders of the pack.

Their next seven league games starting with this weekend’s clash at home to Avispa Fukuoka and ending with the visit of Jubilo Iwata at the end of June all look eminently winnable, with neither of those opponents or any of the handful in-between (Vissel Kobe, Sagan Tosu, Shonan Bellmare, Kyoto Sanga, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo) any higher than mid-table and all needing to be at their very best to stand a chance of upsetting the two-time defending champions.

Frontale’s early exit from the ACL is an undoubted disappointment, but the fact the club now has no further continental commitments this year could serve as a blessing as the season picks up pace and the pressure starts to build. Kawasaki have shown time and again that they have terrific staying power at the top, and as spring moves into summer the question could be whether anyone else is similarly able to handle the heat.

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May 2022

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