Drawing closer

Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who gets the final place in J1 for the 2023 season on Sunday, and while the hosts start as clear favourites they won’t have things all their own way… (日本語版)

With Hajime Moriyasu having announced his 26-man Japan squad at the start of the month attention is steadily turning towards the World Cup, but the 2022 J1 season still hasn’t quite concluded and this weekend Kyoto Sanga and Roasso Kumamoto will square off to decide who takes the final spot in the Japanese top flight next year.

While for a spell it looked as though a big-hitter like Vissel Kobe or Gamba Osaka may suffer the indignity of relegation (or at least a relegation/promotion play-off) it was instead Sanga – as high as ninth in the middle of the season – who slid quietly down into 16th place after winning only two of their last 15 games.

A pair of 0-0 draws to close out the regular season pretty much summed up the characteristic solid, hard-running, hard-working approach of their manager Cho Kwi-jae, and while Sanga never lost more than two games in a row all season they also only managed to emerge victorious on eight occasions.

Defensively rigid, Kyoto had the joint-third best defence in J1 (with Avispa Fukuoka) after conceding just 38 times, while Naoto Kamifukumoto can count himself a little unlucky not to have been named in the yearly Best 11 after frequently pulling off some spectacular stops as he kept a respectable eight clean sheets.

At the other end of the pitch the team carried a distinct lack of scoring threat though, and after veteran Peter Utaka struck the eighth of his nine J1 goals on 3 May Sanga only found the net 16 more times all year to finish as joint-second lowest scorers (with Nagoya Grampus) on just 30 goals. Their paucity in this regard is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that their second top scorer after Utaka was Kosuke Taketomi, who put up just three goals.

Indeed, Sanga failed to score on 12 occasions over the past eight-and-a-half months, including their last two games against Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, when a solitary goal would almost certainly have ensured their J1 status for another year.

“For me as a coach this will be my first time taking part in the play-offs,” Cho said after the stalemate away to Jubilo on the last day of the season.

“We shouldn’t be timid in the game, and I want us to put in a better performance than we did today – I feel we were a little too stiff. Now what’s important is to make sure the players are ready to move on to the next stage.”

Roasso have also drawn their last two games, although thanks to the J.League’s bizarre play-off format those results were enough to book them a place in Sunday’s decisive contest at the expense of Oita Trinita and Montedio Yamagata, both of whom finished below them in the regular J2 season rankings and so needed to win inside 90 minutes away from home to progress at Roasso’s expense – something Roasso themselves now need to do in Kyoto.

While victories may have been a little hard to come by of late, however – Roasso have won just one of their last six games – they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated ahead of this contest, and Takeshi Oki’s side have been one of the most expansive and enjoyable teams to watch in J2 this year.

“Just do the same as always,” was the manager’s characteristically to-the-point reply when asked how how wanted his team to approach the biggest game in Roasso’s history, and continuity has certainly been a theme for the side this year.

Oki, as ever, has stuck to a core of trusted players as his team took straight to the second tier without missing a beat after returning as 2021 J3 champions, with eight players averaging over 75 minutes a game as Roasso cruised past several more fancied opponents to finish fourth.

That has included standout performers in all areas of the pitch, and if Roasso don’t make it to J1 next year – and even if they do – it will be interesting to see if the likes of Masahiro Sugata, So Kawahara, and Toshiki Takahashi are still pulling on the red shirt in 2023.

Alongside those central figures a host of other players have also made stellar contributions, with Naohiro Sugiyama and Koki Sakamoto constant threats in behind top-scorer Takahashi, mid-season arrival from FC Tokyo Rei Hirakawa slotting effortlessly in to the team’s slick passing style, and Kohei Kuroki and Osamu Henry Iyoha flanking Sugata perfectly in the back three.

“It’s the last game of the year so there are many things to keep in mind, but we just have to do the same as always, to make sure we don’t forget what we’ve been doing from game to game throughout the course of the season,” Iyoha said after his goal helped Roasso past Montedio last weekend.

“The opponent will also place a focus on being strong in the duels, but I think if we play with confidence we can achieve a good result.”

Whether that will be enough to secure a first ever promotion to J1 remains to be seen, but what can be said for certain is that Roasso will push Kyoto all the way for the right to play in the first division next year.


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