Author Archive for Sean Carroll

15
Apr
17

Sanfrecce’s slump

The departure of some key players and poor form of some of those left behind has seen Sanfrecce Hiroshima stumble out of the starting blocks this season, but things could be about to click for Hajime Moriyasu’s side…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 15th April, 2017

Sanfrecce Hiroshima suffered a miserable start to the 2017 season, but last Friday’s hard-fought 1-0 win away to Gamba Osaka may just provide a turning point for Hajime Moriyasu’s side.

The Purple Archers – who let’s not forget won three J1 titles between 2012-15 and ran River Plate close in the Club World Cup semi-finals under 18 months ago – slumped to a sixth place finish last season, finishing a full 19 points behind overall leaders Urawa Reds, before starting this campaign in even worse form.

For the first time ever Sanfrecce failed to win any of their first five league games, and after drawing 1-1 at home to Albirex Niigata on the opening day of the season they lost their next four matches, scoring just once more in the process.

Those struggles in front of goal weren’t much of a surprise considering the club opted to offload Hisato Sato and Peter Utaka ahead of the new season, and losing the second most prolific scorer in J.League history and 2016’s joint-top scorer was bound to impact on the team’s attacking threat.

The decision not to offer Utaka the terms he was looking for looked a strange one after his contribution last year, raising concerns about either the club’s financial capabilities or ambition.

The impact of Sato’s departure should also not be underestimated, and while the veteran played a less central role in his 12th season with the club – clocking up just 665 minutes and four goals over 19 appearances last year – the loss of such an experienced and respected player deprived the team of an important voice in the locker room.

Koji Morisaki hanging up his boots saw Sanfrecce lose another player with deep roots at the club, and it seems fairly clear that, whether through choice or necessity, Sanfrecce are going through a transitional phase.

New signing Felipe Silva has shown some promising signs – not least the shot from nowhere that thundered off the woodwork and produced Masato Kudo’s winner against Gamba – but is yet to really click in Sanfrecce’s passing style, while Kudo himself has similarly struggled since his return to J1.

Football Channel / Getty

The former Kashiwa Reysol man scored on his debut on the opening weekend, raising hopes that he was primed to slip straight into Sato’s scoring boots, but he was unable to build on that in the following weeks and his confidence appeared to be dropping with each successive miss as the team endured its losing run.

The relief was palpable after he reacted quickest to pounce on the rebound and prod home the only goal in Suita though, and as he ran to the travelling fans behind the goal you could see a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. A few minutes later the impact of that strike was clear as he instantly looked sharper and more positive, driving at the retreating Gamba defenders before taking another potshot at goal.

Moriyasu was pleased two of his new frontline had combined to deliver a first win of the season, and insisted he’d never had any doubts about the team’s approach.

“We hadn’t scored from open play so far this season but looking at the stats for J1 we’d taken the most shots at goal so I knew that if we continued to do that then of course we’d score,” he said.

“It is better to break the opponent down with beautiful combinations but I’d been constantly saying to the players that they had to play in a way that would strike fear in the opponents, to always be aiming for goal. Felipe put that into practice here and while he hit the post Kudo followed up well. Neither of them were afraid to be aiming for goal.”

Poor form and fitness problems have also had an effect on Sanfrecce’s form, with Mihael Mikic and Yoshifumi Kashiwa – two players key to the team’s counter attacks – missing games through injury, and the likes of Tsukasa Shiotani and Toshihiro Aoyama – who were both standout performers during the team’s purple patch of league triumphs – struggling for their best form.

Once everyone is back in shape it is hard to see the side’s woes continuing for too much longer, although there is another tricky test coming up on Sunday as Yokohama F.Marinos, who themselves ended a barren run of their own with a much needed three points against Jubilo Iwata last weekend, coming to town.

Defeat would leave Sanfrecce in the relegation zone, but a first home win of the season could be the next step back towards the end of the table they are more familiar with.

28
Mar
17

Halil holding his nerve

A changing of the guard looks like it’s getting closer for the Japan national team, but for the time being Vahid Halilhodzic is right to stick with his big name players… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

Vahid Halilhodzic deserves plenty of praise for the way he has dealt with the final round of World Cup qualifying so far.

Japan got off to a terrible start last September when they went down 2-1 at home to UAE, and with several key men not playing regularly for their clubs the Samurai Blue suddenly seemed to have an uphill battle on their hands to make it to a sixth straight World Cup finals.

Goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takuma Asano helped Japan steady their footing with a 2-0 win away to Tuesday’s opponent’s Thailand a few days later though, before the side just about came away with four points from October’s tricky pair of games against Iraq and Australia – Hotaru Yamaguchi slamming home a euphoric injury time winner to seal the 2-1 home win over Iraq, before Haraguchi found the mark for the third game in a row in the 1-1 draw in Melbourne.

The past two games have been the real test, though, and Halilhodzic has negotiated both very well to leave Japan fully in control of their own destiny after beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in November – Hiroshi Kiyotake and, again, Haraguchi notching – and then gaining revenge over UAE thanks to Yuya Kubo’s and Yasuyuki Konno’s goals in last Thursday’s 2-0 victory.

The reason Halilhodzic should be commended is for the manner in which he has managed his players throughout this process, using them intelligently to benefit the team as a whole.

Japan’s two world-renowned stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, are both on their days capable of deciding games for their team, but, unfortunately, neither have been seeing anything approaching regular playing time for their clubs this season, leading to calls for them to be axed from the national team set-up.

Halilhodzic himself added fuel to these fires by publicly warning his players that if they weren’t getting regular minutes he wouldn’t be considering them for his squad.

The 64-year-old is a pragmatist though, and knows that national team and club football are very different beasts. Whereas club sides play once or twice a week over a nine-month season and require a balance between short- and long-term planning, when it comes to international football each meet-up is only focused on one or two games – even at finals most teams only play three or four matches.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 16.25.40

With that in mind Halilhodzic knows he can’t plan too far ahead, and that his selections for each squad must be dependent upon the current situation. Ideally he always has 30 or so players starring for their clubs and jostling for positions in the party, but in reality that just doesn’t happen.

Kagawa, in particular, shouldn’t really be starting at No.10 – and several times of late he hasn’t, with Kiyotake replacing him before himself suffering a dip in form – but when there is no-one else demanding to be picked instead it makes sense to go with the most experienced – and naturally-gifted – option. He may not be dictating the play going forwards – and longer term that is certainly an issue that needs fixing – but the opposition will still be drawn to him, freeing up space for the likes of Haraguchi and Kubo to capitalise upon.

Honda, meanwhile, has played just one minute of football for AC Milan in 2017 – a lamentable fact but one we shouldn’t get too carried away with. When at 100% the 30-year-old is still Japan’s best player, and even if he’s not playing regularly for his club he is more than capable of having an impact in a high pressure game for his country. Therefore, he is certainly still worthy of a spot in the 23 ahead of another decent-but-as-yet-unproven alternative.

Halilhodzic said when naming his most recent squad that Honda’s personality is important for the team, and assuming he finally transfers somewhere in the summer and is playing every week by this time next year then there should be no doubts about him being good to go at his third World Cup.

Of course, that is assuming Japan make it, which while looking more likely now than it did six months ago is still far from decided.

Thankfully for Kagawa and Honda enough other players have been stepping up to the plate during their lulls though, with relatively new faces like Kubo, Haraguchi, and Osako making positive contributions and veterans like Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida, and Konno – all of whom were excellent against UAE in Al Ain – making sure they lead by example when called upon.

If they can do the same again against Thailand today then Halilhodzic and Japan will surely have half-a-foot in Russia.

10
Mar
17

Cerezo looking to end play-off jinx

Since J2 introduced play-offs in 2012, every team promoted via the post-season  decider has finished bottom of the top flight the following year. Cerezo Osaka are expected to buck that trend this season, but they have gotten off to a fairly inauspicious start…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

We have only had two rounds of the new J1 season, but Saturday’s game between Consadole Sapporo and Cerezo Osaka is incredibly important for both promoted sides.

Neither has managed to pick up a win from either of their first two outings in 2017, and a victory this weekend could provide just the kick-start needed to get last year’s J2 champion or play-off winner up and running.

Sapporo have lost both their openers without scoring a goal (1-0 to Vegalta Sendai and 3-0 to Yokohama F.Marinos), while Cerezo have just one point to show for their efforts after drawing 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata and losing 3-1 to Urawa Reds.

While Sapporo were widely tipped to struggle back in the top flight, Cerezo’s slow start is a bit of a surprise, and they will want to right their course sooner rather than later if they are to end the curse of the play-off champion.

Considering the quality of Cerezo’s squad – which as well as boasting current and recent national team players Hotaru Yamaguchi and Yoichiro Kakitani was boosted just before the start of the new campaign by the returning Hiroshi Kiyotake, who has established himself as Vahid Halilhodzic’s first choice in the hole for the Samurai Blue – it would be something of a surprise if they did slip straight back through the trapdoor.

A loss against Sapporo would leave them in ominous company though.

All four sides previously promoted via the play-offs have gone on to finish bottom of J1 the following season, and only one of them – Montedio Yamagata in 2015 – managed to pick up a win in their first three matches.

It took Cerezo a couple of seasons and they certainly made hard work of getting back out of J2, but they were a big fish in the second tier and now they need to adjust to their new status in the top flight.

“We know that in J1 we will spend more time in games defending,” Yamaguchi said after last weekend’s defeat in Saitama. “Whereas Urawa have very high accuracy in their passing and combinations when attacking we made too many mistakes when we went forward and gifted possession back to them many times.”

The 26-year-old cited mitigating circumstances for Cerezo’s disjointed display though, pointing out that they lack the consistency of Mihailo Petrovic’s side.

“Our coach has just changed, we’ve got some players out injured and some new players in the side, plus we are trying to play a new type of football, so of course there is a difference in the degree of completion between us and Urawa, who rarely change their players or approach.”

Kakitani offered a similar explanation, and suggested that lack of communication was partly to blame.

“The coach has just changed, whereas Urawa’s manager has been in charge for a long time,” he said. “After the game the players were talking a lot about many things, and I think it would be good if we were able to do that before the game too.”

Football Channel:Getty, Friday 10th March, 2017

Depsite the array of attacking talent at Yoon Jong-hwan’s disposal it was centre-back Matej Jonjic who found the net against Urawa, and the new addition from Incheon United was also keen to emphasise the gap between last year’s overall league winner and the returnees from J2.

“They are in the top three teams in the J.League, playing in the Champions League,” the Croatian said. “We just came from the second division; the difference is obvious. We have to work harder and try to work on our mistakes.

“We started too slow and I think we were missing some confidence in this game. After my goal we tried to come back, but it was too late.”

Souza agreed that Cerezo’s hesitant start was what cost them the game against Urawa.

“They’re a very high quality team so if you give them the freedom to build up like we did in the first half then that will happen,” the Brazilian said. “In the second half we pushed up a bit more and I think things went better then.

“We need to work on our defending but it’s not just that and there are many areas we need to correct. That’s not to say everything was bad though, and as well as fixing the things that need improving we also need to keep going with the areas that worked well.”

Indeed, Cerezo did cause Reds some problems in the second half, and with better finishing they could have made for a nervy end to the game for their hosts. That fact provided a source of some optimism for Souza.

“In J1 the level of the players and the tactics is higher, but we play with good connections going forward and I think we are capable of causing opponents problems.”

A fit Kiyotake would certainly improve the team in that respect, although Souza refused to build the new No.46 up too much, clearly unwilling to talk down any of the players currently in the first eleven.

“We’re a very good team and Kiyotake is a great player who plays for the national team, but that’s up to the coach to think about so please ask him,” the 28-year-old added with a grin.

In Yoon the club certainly have a boss capable of building a solid outfit, with the South Korean having worked wonders at Sagan Tosu before he was controversially fired with them top of the table in August 2014.

He has made his aims very clear this year too, and Jonjic insists the players are focused on ending the play-off jinx by finishing in the top half of the table.

“The manager already said his goal before the season started, so we just follow his ideas and his goals and let’s see where we will be after the season. He said top nine, so the club have made that goal and we will follow that and are trying our best to reach it.”

A win in what is sure to be a packed Sapporo Dome on Saturday would certainly lay down a marker on the way to that target. Defeat, however, could strike an early psychological blow to Cerezo’s ambitions.

25
Feb
17

Antlers start reign with own-goal loss

The new J.League season got up and running in characteristically unpredictable fashion today, with last year’s two best sides both losing their first matches. I was in Kashima to see the champions Antlers splutter in their opener against FC Tokyo…

The Japan News, 25th February, 2017

KASHIMA, Ibaraki — FC Tokyo caused an upset on the opening day of the J.League season, winning 1-0 away to reigning champion Kashima Antlers on Saturday.

It took an own goal to separate the sides, with the result ultimately decided by unfortunate Kashima substitute Yuto Misao in the 82nd minute.

Both teams had spells in the ascendancy during a closely contested battle, but FC Tokyo coach Yoshiyuki Shinoda was pleased his team was able to start with such an impressive scalp.

“It was the opening game of the season, so we were still a little rusty in some respects,” the 45-year-old said.

“Antlers are not the kind of opponent you can play for a draw against though, and we knew we had to aim to score goals over the whole 90 minutes if we wanted to take anything from this game.”

The visitors certainly started as the more expansive of the two sides, and their first sighter on goal came in the seventh minute when new signing Yoshito Okubo stung the fingers of Kashima goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae with an effort from close range.

Yojiro Takahagi then fired straight at Kwoun from distance in the 37th minute, before an unmarked Kensuke Nagai somehow failed to meet a Sei Muroya cross two minutes later.

Pedro Junior reminded Tokyo of the threat Antlers pose on the break with a swift counter in the 43rd minute, but the impressive Muroya recovered well to shut down the danger.

Fourteen minutes after the break it was Okubo’s turn to contribute a glaring miss to the proceedings.

The three-time J1 top scorer signed from Kawasaki Frontale over the offseason looked odds on to score, but got a little overexcited and lashed wildly over from point-blank range after Nagai had prodded a corner in his direction.

The Japan News, Saturday 25th February, 2017

He was almost punished for that miss less than a minute later, but Tokyo keeper Akihiro Hayashi did well to foil Pedro Junior on another quick break.

“If Hayashi hadn’t made that save at 0-0 things could have been different,” Shinoda observed afterwards.

Instead it was Tokyo who went on to pick up the three points, with the winner coming eight minutes from time.

Substitute Shoya Nakajima had a shot from range more in hope than expectation, and which looked like a routine collection for Kashima keeper Kwoun.

The South Korean fluffed his lines, though, and spilled the ball into the path of fellow league debutant Misao, who couldn’t react in time to avoid inadvertently sending it into his own net.

Elsewhere, there was plenty of drama in the day’s early kick off as last year’s runner-up Urawa Reds also lost, going down 3-2 in a rollercoaster match away to Yokohama F Marinos.

Marinos took the lead through David Babunski in the 13th minute, but Rafael Silva then struck twice in three second-half minutes to put Reds 2-1 up.

Marinos secured a dramatic late win with a quickfire double of their own, as Hugo Vieira equalized in the 86th minute and Naoki Maeda converted the winner in the second minute of injury time.

Meanwhile, the newly promoted sides had muted days.

Cerezo Osaka drew 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata, while Consadole Sapporo and Shimizu S-Pulse both lost 1-0, against Vegalta Sendai and Vissel Kobe, respectively.

25
Feb
17

J.LEAGUE PREVIEW / Marinos move on after Nakamura departure

There were ructions at Yokohama F.Marinos in the off-season as club legend Shunsuke Nakamura departed in acrimonious circumstances, but coach Erick Mombaerts is unruffled heading into a new era for the Nissan Stadium club…

The Japan News, 24th February, 2016

Yokohama F.Marinos manager Erick Mombaerts insists it will be business as usual at Nissan Stadium this year, despite the headline-grabbing departure of captain Shunsuke Nakamura.

The 38-year-old Nakamura left his boyhood club for Jubilo Iwata over the offseason, with rumors swirling of discontent behind the scenes and an uneasy relationship between coach and player.

Former France U-21 coach Mombaerts is unfazed by the upheaval though, and remains firmly focused on the task at hand in his third year at the helm.

“Whether Shunsuke was here or not, the aim would be to improve on last year, to show a better performance than last season,” the 61-year-old said.

“Our style is based upon speedy play with good combinations, and the objective is to fine-tune that. That isn’t dependent upon which players have left or come in, but is always the target.

“The players who are able to play that style are the ones who will appear in the games. If Shunsuke was still here, that would be the aim, and it doesn’t change because he’s not.”

The ongoing shift to a younger, more dynamic Marinos is epitomized by the team’s new captain, Manabu Saito.

“He’s a very important player at this club and I hope he will take on the extra responsibility this season,” Mombaerts said of his decision to select the livewire forward as Nakamura’s successor.

“He’s a national team player and gives everything he has in every single game, so I’m sure he can lead the team.”

Saito, who will also assume Nakamura’s No. 10 shirt, was chosen ahead of more experienced members of the squad, but knows he has their full backing.

“Many people are supporting me — Bomber [Yuji Nakazawa], Machi [Kosuke Nakamachi], Yuzo [Kurihara] — and so along with their help I will try to add something of myself,” the 26-year-old said.

The Japan News, 24th February, 2017

“It’s not the case of wondering what will happen now that I’m captain, but instead to just work at improving the team. I think for that to happen it is important there are many voices being heard.

“There’s been a turnover of players and of course a legend has left, but Marinos will keep going.”

Cayman Togashi is another player who represents the emerging generation of talent at Marinos, and echoed the sentiments of both his coach and new captain.

“We want to continue with the things we were doing last year while also adding some new elements and trying to get some cohesion between the two,” the 23-year-old striker said.

“Of course, now we don’t have an absolute star player in the same mold as Shunsuke, but I feel that unconsciously the team is in the situation of feeling, ‘right, let’s get things done by ourselves.’

“Manabu has been made captain, but it’s not just up to him, and I think we are now in a position whereby all of us have to take responsibility.”

Nakamura played 338 times during two stints with his boyhood club — punctuated by a successful spell in Europe — but only appeared in just over half of his team’s league games in the two seasons since Mombaerts took charge.

In that time the club finished seventh and 10th in the overall table, and Mombaerts is looking to lift the team up a notch this campaign.

“Coaches all over the world say they want to win the league, that the target is to become champions, but that is easy to say,” he explained.

“What is actually important is to improve the performance of the team from last year to make the team better than before. That comes from working hard every day — not just words, but actually putting it into practice — and the results correspond with that.

“I want to raise the level of the team and have us move up the table and compete with the top sides. It is not words but playing quality that leads to results.”

25
Feb
17

J.LEAGUE PREVIEW / One shot at glory: Reds and Antlers renew rivalry as title favorites as league format reverts to winner takes all

Kashima Antlers emerged victorious from las year’s post-season play-offs to pick up the 2016 J1 crown, but over the regular season Urawa Reds claimed the most points. I spoke to players from both teams to see how they’re shaping up ahead of the new campaign…

The Japan News, 24th February, 2016

The J.League first division returns to a regular 34-game format this season after its two-stage system was drawn to a close in controversial circumstances in 2016.

Kashima Antlers’ shirt will be adorned with the official gold champion’s patch after the Ibaraki club won last year’s postseason “Championship” playoff, but defeated opponent Urawa Reds have every right to feel aggrieved having finished a full 15 points ahead of Antlers over the course of the season.

While that was a bitter pill for Reds to swallow, the players’ belief in their approach has not diminished as they head into the new campaign, which kicks off Saturday.

“We have the feeling of being the champion — we won the overall league with the most points in history, so we have confidence,” Reds striker Tadanari Lee told The Japan News ahead of the new season.

“However, Kashima then went on to play against Real Madrid and put in a great performance, so maybe everyone has forgotten [about our achievement].”

The former Southampton striker admits he was supporting Antlers as they did themselves proud as J.League representative at the Club World Cup — taking Real to extra time in the final before succumbing to two quick-fire Cristiano Ronaldo goals — and insists there is no extra desire to exact revenge.

“That’s not really a motivation,” he said. “We know if we play our football we’ll win the title — we just have to believe in that. Every team has brought in reinforcements, but the most important thing is the strength of the team as a whole.”

Defender Wataru Endo is reading from the same script.

“We know if we do the same thing as last season and get the most points, then we’ll be the champion,” the Japan defender said.

“On top of that, because we lost in the Championship last year, we weren’t able to compete in the Club World Cup, which is a competition I personally and the team as a whole really want to take part in.

“To do that now we have to win the Asian Champions League, so our two big targets this year are to become the champion in the league and the ACL.”

Antlers played the system to perfection last season, but know they will have to redouble their efforts in order to retain the J1 shield.

“This year it isn’t the case that you can win the first stage and know you are guaranteed a playoff place,” centerback Gen Shoji said. “We must aim to win the title outright.”

That task has been made even tougher by an unforgiving schedule.

Antlers’ 2016 campaign didn’t conclude until they defeated Kawasaki Frontale to also lift the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day 2017, and after just a fortnight off, the team was back in preseason training.

Since then the Ibaraki outfit has taken part in warm-up competitions in Thailand and Miyazaki, beaten Reds 3-2 in Saturday’s curtain-raising Super Cup match, and also gotten its ACL campaign underway on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai.

However, Shoji is determined not to use the fixture congestion as an excuse.

The Japan News, Friday 24th February, 2017

“The only way to think about it is positively,” the 24-year-old said.

“Instead of thinking, ‘Ah, we didn’t have much time off to rest,’ it can be a positive for us if we look at it in the sense that our bodies are still in good shape, and it has been easier to get back into the swing of things.”

Chasing the J.League-ACL double

The strain on the Kashima squad will also be eased by several impressive signings, with goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae, defender Yuto Misao, and Brazilian pair Leo Silva and Pedro Junior all arriving.

“The club have brought in a few new players, but it’s not like there will be two different teams for the J.League and ACL,” Leo Silva said. “As a group we are all working together to become champion in the league and in Asia.

“Having the chance to join a team that achieved such good results last year serves as a big motivation. You don’t get so many chances in your career to win titles, so it is great to join a team like Kashima, which is always in the mix to win competitions.”

His compatriot Pedro Junior scored 11 times in the league for Vissel Kobe last season and is hoping he can help his new side build on the success of 2016.

“The aim has to be to achieve even better results than last season, especially when you consider that a club as big as Kashima has never won the Asian Champions League,” he said.

“The coach and his staff have clearly outlined what our targets are for the season, and each of us is playing with them in mind.

“Last year the two-stage-plus-playoffs system worked to Kashima’s advantage, but this year it is back to the team with the most points over the season being declared champion, so we are all concentrating on fighting together to achieve that.”

Reds have also added firepower though, and Endo believes this will make last season’s most consistent side an even tougher proposition.

“The number of players in the squad has risen, which adds an extra sense of competition for places,” he said. “In particular, I feel we now have a lot of options in the forward positions.”

Rafael Silva from Albirex Niigata and Japan U-23 striker Ado Onaiwu are the two out-and-out center forwards to have joined, and Onaiwu has detected a resolution in the squad to make up for last season’s disappointment.

“The atmosphere in the camp is really good, and everyone is very positive,” the former JEF United player said.

“Of course there is some lingering regret after the way last season ended, but everyone has the motivation to put that right this year. There is a desire to change the mind-set, in a good way, and approach this season with a new spirit to make sure we win the title.”

The race to the finish line is sure to be as fierce as ever, but when it comes to deciding the 2017 champion, there will be no ambiguity — this year there can be only one.

24
Feb
17

Points win prizes

Kashima Antlers picked up the J1 trophy last season, but their points totals over the past few seasons suggest they will have to up their game this year if they want to be doing so again in 2017… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 24th February, 2017

The 2017 J.League season started in much the same way as the 2016 one ended, with Kashima Antlers just about edging out Urawa Reds to pick up another piece of silverware.

The manner of Antlers’ 3-2 win in last weekend’s Super Cup was also similar to that in which they snatched the J1 title last year, with Yuma Suzuki capitalising on a late mistake by a Reds defender to decide the game – Wataru Endo his victim this time after Tomoaki Makino was caught snoozing in December.

The reigning J1 champions emerging victorious from the season curtain-raiser is far from a surprise – the last nine have now been claimed by the previous year’s league winner – and while the match is always an enjoyable way to shake off the cobwebs and get the ball rolling on a new season, everyone knows not to read too much into the result.

What comes next is what matters, and while winning one-off games against title rivals is not a bad habit to get into, of equal importance is the ability to deal with the rest of the division as well.

While the temptation is to tip Antlers as favourites to retain their title, then, a closer look at the stats suggests they have plenty of improvement to make if they want to be picking up a ninth J1 shield come December.

Last year, as received much coverage, Masatada Ishii’s side finished 15 points adrift of overall league leaders Urawa before sealing the league in dramatic fashion on away goals in the Championship final. This year the one-stage format is back though, meaning there are no shortcuts to glory available and all that matters is who is standing tallest after 34 rounds of games.

That should provide plenty of encouragement for Reds and the other sides targeting the title, with Antlers not only having struggled on that front last season but having done so for the past few years.

The Ibaraki side’s league form in 2016 read 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats, leaving them with 59 points. In 2015 they also picked up 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats. The year before that they managed 18 wins, six draws, and 10 defeats, while, incredibly, 2013 also produced a record of 18-5-11.

While such numbers display scarcely believable consistency, these are not the kind of figures usually associated with winning the league. Indeed, 60 points is the lowest total accrued by a champion since J1 expanded to 18 teams, and that was in the famous 2005 season when five teams were in with a chance of winning the title on the final day of the season.

Football Channel, Friday 24th February, 2017 (Getty)

With that in mind, the Antlers players know they need to deliver a steadier pace over the course of the 2017 campaign.

“The coach hasn’t really given any new instructions, but we all know we have to maintain a high level for the whole season,” Daigo Nishi said after the Super Cup.

“For that we will need the strength of more players then before, and we have a very good group. It is up to the coach and the senior players to make sure we are able to achieve and maintain that feeling.”

Suzuki, perhaps mindful of having won last weekend’s match after coming off the bench, agreed that standards have to improve throughout the entire squad.

“We have a heavy schedule and so need the strength of every player,” the 20-year-old observed.

“I think it’s impossible with just 11 players; we need to have everyone on board. My job is to keep scoring the goals and I want to score lots,” he added, declining to provide any specific target and merely reiterating, “Lots”.

Reds, meanwhile, picked up a league-record 74 points last year after winning 23 games, drawing five, and losing six. That followed an impressive 21 wins, nine draws and just four defeats in 2015, which was preceded by a tally of 18-8-8 in 2014, and while the Saitama giant does still need to shake of its nearly-men tag, the team is clearly improving each season.

However, while the players have undoubtedly grown in confidence as a result of their table-topping exploits last year they still don’t have any league medals to show for their efforts, and Yuki Muto is determined to put that right this time out.

“We want to show that we are the best team and we have the same motivation as always,” he said.

“Of course, there is still a lingering sense of regret that we were pulled back in despite having 15 points more [than Kashima in 2016], but this year the team at the top of the table becomes champion and so we have to pick up points over the whole season to make sure that come the end of the year it is Reds that are smiling.”

There is a lot of football to be played, but if Mihailo Petrovic’s side can match their recent figures then it will take an impressive effort for somebody else to beat them to the finish line in 2017.




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