Tuesday, 14 July 2020
By Justin Bodanac
The J1 League returned with a welcome flurry last week, playing three rounds across just eight days. Fortunes have favoured sides that have hit the ground running – taking advantage of opposition yet to fully emerge from hibernation. It’s early days, but campaigns can be forged or derailed in times such as these. The football isn’t the only thing to celebrate either – the league announced in late June that it would not be implementing VAR for the 2020 season. Matches have been allowed to flow without its incessant interference – it feels the way football should be. In even better news, fans have been allowed to return to stadiums since July 10 (at socially-distant intervals, capped at maximum 50 percent stadium capacity up to 5,000 people).
It’s been a mixed bag for the Australian contingent since the restart. Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F. Marinos have yet to find the form that so emphatically won them the title last season (perhaps premiership hangovers aren’t just for the AFL?) The Marinos have only managed one win this season, and were pushed all the way for that victory against a Shonan Bellmare side that deserved more. Residing in 13th position, Postecoglou has no better opportunity to revive back-to-back title hopes when they visit Kashima Antlers this coming weekend. Kashima, Japan’s most successful domestic side, are in the midst of their worst start in history. They are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table (under new manager Antônio Carlos Zago) with four consecutive losses (six in all competitions) and have registered just once thanks to Kawasaki Frontale player Leandro Damião’s own-goal.
The only other team in the league to share Kashima’s 100 percent loss record is Peter Cklamovski’s Shimizu S-Pulse. Cklamovski spent two seasons learning the league as Postecoglou’s assistant coach at F. Marinos (succeeding their time together with the Australian national team) before taking the reigns at the S-Pa for the 2020 season. No team has conceded more goals than Cklamovski’s side, which visits La Liga retirement village Vissel Kobe next round. Aside from their own 2019 Emperor’s Cup victory, Kobe has continued to underperform on all fronts. It remains to be seen if Rakuten’s heavy investment will ever reap the dividends they desire from the squad, currently in twelfth place on goal difference.
While Australian managers have had mixed fortunes, the Australian players are faring better. Mitch Langerak’s Nagoya Grampus is one of three sides to remain undefeated so far. Nagoya fans will be wary, as they started 2019 in even better form, only to narrowly avoid relegation on goal difference. But Langerak has proven himself to be one of the most adept goalkeepers in the league – a huge presence on the pitch, he is consistently called upon to make crucial interventions, including some phenomenal instinctive keeping recently against Gamba Osaka in Round Three. Nagoya’s fifth place is even more impressive given the departure of 2018 league top-scorer Jô back to his boyhood club Corinthians. Grampus has a great opportunity to cement their position this weekend when they host perennial relegation battlers Sagan Tosu.
Sitting even higher up the table in second spot is Socceroo Thomas Deng’s unbeaten Urawa Red Diamonds. The 23 -year-old defender has enjoyed a successful start to his J1 League career, featuring in all three games – the team conceding just one goal. The 2017 AFC Champions League winners look at this early stage to have put their 2019 form slump behind them, but face league runners-up FC Tokyo on Saturday in the match of the round. Tokyo is fresh from their 3-1 victory over Yokohama F. Marinos, with in-form Brazilian forward Leandro scoring three goals in the last four games. However, Urawa will be aware that Tokyo is fallible – as their recent 0-4 capitulation at the hands of league leaders Kawasaki Frontale will attest. Under manager Toru Oniki, Frontale continues to be one of the most consistent and impressive sides in the modern era of the J1 League. They have registered more goals than any other side; their formidable attacking talent including Tatsuya Hasegawa, Akihiro Ienaga and Leandro Damião. Frontale travel to Yokohama to take on recently promoted Yokohama FC on Saturday.
Rounding out the top half are usual suspects Cerezo Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Consadole Sapporo, Gamba Osaka and the overachieving Oita Trinita. Since their promotion in 2019, Trinita have been the surprise of the league – picking points off the establishment and finishing a very respectable ninth last season. They have continued to perform with pragmatism and guile in 2020, already beating Sanfrecce 2-1. Trinita travel to Gamba this weekend in the hope of making a further dent at the top, while Sanfrecce host Cerezo, and Consa visit Vegalta Sendai.
The narratives are only just starting to unfold in the J1 League, with 30 rounds left to play before a mid-December finish. For a league of this calibre and time-zone to now be so accessible to Australian viewers is a win for everyone involved. If you’re unfamiliar with the J1 League, I suggest you adopt a club and settle in for a busy schedule of free-flowing prime-time football.
J1 League Table – Tuesday, 14 July 2020