On September 13th, 2013 I made one of my boldest and dumbest J League predictions yet. Anticipating Yokohama’s experienced campaigners Marquinhos and Nakamura would steer the team toward title security, I twat, “Looking at draw, FMarinos should get 12 points from next four matches.” Yokohama managed six points from the available twelve. The first two games saw F Marinos take four points at home against Cerezo Osaka and Shimizu S Pulse. But the nervous shakes become full blown yips when they slipped at Ventforet Kofu on the weekend. Yokohama snared a point at Sendai and that was acceptable, but the debacle at Kofu could cost them the title.
The game ended in a 0-0 stalemate with Yokohama banging on the door over the last fifteen minutes, only for usually cool heads to blunder in front of goal. Shunsuke Nakamura was kept out of the game by a clogged midfield, reinforced by Kofu’s five strong back-line. It was left to 23 year old Manabu Saito to inspire the team late in the game. The midfielder pounced on a poor pass and provided a ‘room service’ cross for striker Fujita. He missed! Soon Saito lobbed a ball from his native left side, which was half shot, and half cross. Brazilian Marquinhos flew threw the air like a flightless bird. He just couldn’t meet the ball. It was inside the last ten minutes and Yokohama had begun to dominate proceedings, but for the occasional counter from Kofu. Finally in injury time a breakaway saw Saito feed the ball to Fujita who found himself one on one with the goalkeeper. His shot was smothered but the ball deflected into the path of Saito. The midfielder volleyed the bouncing ball downward but couldn’t beat the relegation threatened Kofu keeper.
Meanwhile, Hiroshima have been ‘making hay’ with three wins from their last three outings. Although their opponents aren’t the J League’s most feared teams, neither were those that Yokohama faced. Hiroshima dispatched the usually stubborn Niigata 2-nil, they travelled to Kyushu and took care of Sagan Tosu 2-nil, and rounded things off with a flattering 3-1 win at home against Shimizu. Hiroshima showed champion qualities in their most recent outing. They went behind 1-nil after 71 minutes but fought back to win and regain the J League’s top spot. Their next J League outing sees them face top of the table rivals Yokohama F Marinos on Saturday, 19th October.
In another fixture list convenience 3rd placed Urawa Reds travel to Kashima to take on 4th placed Antlers. Kashima Antlers are the J League’s most successful club, having won seven titles since the league formed in 1993. At their most recent outing Kashima swept nearby Tokyo aside 4-1. The rout began in the 7th minute with a long range shot from Yasushi Endo, next it was Davi off the outside of his left foot in the 9th minute. 34 year old defender Ogasawara got on the score sheet with a hammering drive as the Tokyo defence continued to retreat. Rounding it off was hot prospect Yuya Osako with his goal in the 81st minute.
The Antlers have history and momentum on their side, with six wins from their last eight matches. Also on their side is the stuttering form of the three front-runners. This prompted soccer writer Chris Coll to say of the J League, “Seems like the league no one wants to win sometimes.” We agree, but maybe over the last two months we’ve seen someone stand up and say they want to win. There are six games remaining and amongst them Kashima face both Urawa and Hiroshima. On December 7th, Kashima host Hiroshima on the last day of the season. Could this be the title decider?