Posts Tagged ‘湘南ベルマーレ

08
Jul
11

The only way is up

The 2012 season will see the final promotion place from J2 decided by an English Championship-esque play-off, and as the level of the league continues to improve I think it’s a very good idea.

 

The J.League recently announced plans to introduce a play-off system in J2 from the 2012 season, meaning that the teams finishing third to sixth would all be in with a chance of moving up to the top-flight.

While opinion is fairly divided on this – with some asking how the sixth-placed side is likely to fare in J1 when considering the abysmal top-flight form of Avispa Fukuoka, who came third in J2 in 2010 – I am all for it and think that anything which adds to the competitiveness of the second tier is good for the Japanese game.

Avispa have certainly struggled – and nothing short of a miracle will keep them from relegation this year – but prior to them the only side to have moved up to J1 from the final promotion place and been relegated straight away is Shonan Bellmare.

Before this season 11 other teams, including Shonan, had come up in the last available spot and four of them – Reds, Omiya, Kobe and Yamagata – are still there. Four  more – Sendai, Cerezo, Sanfrecce and Kofu – went back down but are now re-established in the top-flight, while the final two sides are last year’s relegated pair of FC Tokyo and Kyoto Sanga – the former of whom are strong favourites to make a return next season.

Although they have recovered slightly from their far from impressive start to life back in the second division, Tokyo’s promotion is definitely not a foregone conclusion though, and the growing competitiveness of J2 was demonstrated by JEF’s failure to gain an instant return last year.

JEF’s head coach Dwight Lodeweges is well aware of the difficulty in gaining promotion, and insisted before the season that just being a big club is not enough to secure a spot in the top-flight.

“It’s not just a name that brings you back or does well or keeps you in J1. We have to do the right things. What I’m trying to do now is to build a foundation but it just doesn’t happen like that, it’s not just like pushing a button and there you go. We have to do the right things and make the right choices.”

Alongside JEF and FC Tokyo this year’s J2 also features two more giants of the Japanese game who could be revitalized by a return to the top table, in Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama FC – although both sides are admittedly shadows of their former selves at this moment in time.

Add to these the likes of Tochigi, Sagan Tosu, Tokushima Vortis and Roasso Kumamoto and you have almost half a division who have either the tradition or ability – or both – to make a go of it in J1.

Indeed, the introduction of a play-off system as opposed to three automatic promotion spots may actually help sides with the ambition of gaining promotion.

While, of course, it would be foolish to claim that any team had ever achieved promotion by accident, it could be suggested that some teams have made the step-up after a season of over-achievement – which they had perhaps not fully anticipated before the first ball was kicked. 

If teams know that there are twice as many berths available with the potential to take them to J1 though, then they may be able to better equip themselves for life in the top tier if and when they get there.

The instant success enjoyed by Cerezo, Sanfrecce and, so far, Reysol after re-joining J1 backs up this argument, with each team having had promotion as their realistic target throughout their season in the second tier. 

Just as importantly, if not more so, play-offs would also add to the excitement in the division by ensuring that more teams actually have something to play for as the season nears its climax. (Relegation, something else that I believe urgently needs to be introduced, would also serve this aim).

Furthermore, just because the sixth-placed team is in with a chance of gaining promotion to J1 it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take it, and they’ll still have to beat two of the teams above them to earn the right.

And, anyway, even if they do they can’t really do any worse than Avispa, can they?

01
Dec
10

The best is yet to come

Although they dramatically lost to Jubilo Iwata in the Nabisco Cup Final, Sanfrecce Hiroshima are without doubt one of the most vibrant and enjoyable teams to watch in the J.League. I discussed the reasons for this and what the future may hold for the club in my recent column in Weekly Soccer Magazine. 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima may have suffered heartbreak in last month’s Nabisco Cup Final, but their progress since returning to the top-flight of Japanese football should not be underestimated.

As well as making it to National Stadium for their epic clash with Jubilo Iwata, the Purple Archers have also made their first appearance in the Asian Champions League – qualifying immediately after returning to the top-tier.

Consistency has been the key to this success, with coach Mihailo Petrovic just concluding his fifth year in charge of the club. The Serbian has been given plenty of time to construct his own team, and he has done this intelligently, enabling his players to build an incredibly strong relationship.

It is no surprise that a squad comprising of ten academy graduates have such a close understanding out on the pitch, and the club’s philosophy is unlikely to change in the near future after their youth team were victorious in the Prince Takamado Cup in October.

As well as not being afraid of giving the club’s youngsters opportunities, Petrovic has been intelligent with the players brought in to add to the mix, ensuring that they not only have the relevant qualities to blend with their teammates, but also are able to assist in their education.

The impressive acclimatisation by Sanfrecce is not entirely unique. In the ten years since movement between J1 and J2 was made possible, twenty three teams have been promoted to the top-flight, with just four of them dropping straight back down the next season (although it looks as if Shonan Bellmare will be making it five from twenty six fairly soon).

What is especially refreshing about the achievements of Sanfrecce – and, this year, Cerezo Osaka – though is the fact that they have not abandoned the styles that initially earned them seats at the top table.

Sanfrecce scored 99 goals in the season that led to their promotion back to the top-flight – while Cerezo went one better, securing a century of strikes last year – and both sides still adopt an enthusiastic and adventurous approach in J1.

It could be argued that it is actually these aggressive styles which have caused the two sides to fall away in the league in the latter part of the season though, preventing even more sensational success.

Sanfrecce managed to keep pace for the first three-quarters of last season but when it came to the final straight the players began to tire, with the size of their squad not quite big enough to fully compete with the biggest teams in J1.

After they experienced that almighty collapse at Todoroki at this stage last season – when Frontale defeated them 7-0 and all but ended their title chances – Croatian wide-man Mihael Mikic referred to the demands placed on such a small squad.

“The season is very difficult; the whole team is always running. It’s a non-stop season – you start with training in January and now it’s November. One year non-stop and the summer in Japan is very, very difficult. When it’s the end of the season we don’t have many players in the squad as we always play the same guys and that is very difficult.”

“We are a team who cannot stop and just say, ‘OK, 1-0 or 2-0.’ We go, go, go! Every game we play football. Against Kawasaki or Kashima, Omiya, Oita, we always play the same. At 5-0 Hisato (Sato) said, “Go, we go!”, and I said, “Hisa, easy!” and he says “No, we go!

Such an enthusiastic – if slightly naive – approach was also their undoing against Jubilo. Having been just one minute away from their first piece of silverware when Ryoichi Maeda scored his first goal, the team capitulated in extra time, conceding a further three goals and managing just one of their own in reply.

While they have come up just short again this year – with the demands of the ACL and Nabisco run taking their toll – the team do have time on their side, and if Petrovic can keep the bulk of the squad together it would be very surprising if they are not celebrating a victory of their own very soon.




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