By Justin Bodanac
As the European leagues wind down, the 2020 J1 League season is starting to fire on all cylinders. With eight rounds now played, the season’s complexion is emerging with some genuine surprises already afoot.
There is perhaps no greater story in Japanese football right now than the extraordinary goal scoring form of Kashiwa Reysol’s Michael Olunga. The 26-year-old Kenyan has registered nine goals in eight outings for the Sun Kings this season, leading them to four consecutive wins and fourth position on the table. The striker, who has spent time in Sweden, China and Spain, notched 27 times in 30 games in the J2 League last season with Kashiwa and has carried that form into the top tier with remarkable ease.
Nelsinho Baptista’s side looks excellent going forward, with an array of technically gifted, speedy attackers and Olunga playing off the shoulder of the last defender. His goals have come in all forms – solo runs, close range headers, or well-worked combination play in the box. His physicality and height (193cm) present an instant dilemma for defenders across the league, but it is perhaps the sheer ease and confidence with which he is converting that is the most impressive element of his game at the moment. Credit must also be given to teammates Ataru Esaka and Yuta Kamiya – each contributing a league-high four assists. Kashiwa travels to Yokohama F. Marinos this Saturday. The Marinos continue to endure an inconsistent season, languishing in 11th spot. Defensive frailties have been their undoing in recent weeks (particularly against Kashima Antlers and Consadole Sapporo) while they rely heavily on Marcos Junior (five goals) and Kota Mizunuma (four assists) at the other end. Buoyed by two wins in their last three games, manager Ange Postecoglou will be hoping that the 12-point gap to the top of the table isn’t as insurmountable as it seems.
Leading the league as the only unbeaten team left in the competition is Kawasaki Frontale. With seven wins in a row, Toru Oniki’s side is playing like champions-elect – a well-oiled machine, nary putting a foot wrong. Their ability to pressure the opposition out of possession, creating quick transitions with an abundance of attacking options, has resulted in ten individual goalscorers already. Frontale host plucky Oita Trinita on the weekend, sitting just outside the bottom three after losing their last four games.
Miguel Ángel Lotina’s second-placed Cerezo Osaka is a slight statistical anomaly. They’ve won just two of their last five league matches and no side in the top twelve has converted fewer chances, but their efficiency and organisation keeps opponents from creating too much against them. Midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake has been intrinsic in this success, scoring last week’s penalty against Shonan Bellmare in a 1-0 victory and leading their assist tally. Shonan have to be the unluckiest last-placed team in recent times. Losses have been narrow and their efforts have been competitive. Manager Bin Ukishima does have a dilemma with Moroccan signing Tarik Elyounoussi. The striker is capable of highlight reel moments – such as his well-taken scissor-kick against Frontale in the sixth round – however he has largely been used as a late substitute, indicating that perhaps the move isn’t working out as well as the club had hoped. Shonan travel to Sanfrecce Hiroshima this weekend, who are in tenth position. Judged on halftime results alone, they would be fourth in the league, yet their tendency to concede late in games has cost them. Last weekend however, Sanfrecce nabbed their first win in five against Yokohama FC, with strikes from Tsukasa Morishima and Douglas Vieira. Yokohama has now lost four league games on the trot. The newly promoted side cannot be faulted for effort, but at times have shown fatigue due to the condensed fixture, and perhaps a little tactical naivety, too. They visit a Gamba Osaka side currently in excellent form. Winning four of their last five matches, they have a variety of players capable of getting on the scoresheet, with Takashi Usami and Ademilson leading the line. But perhaps their most exceptional performer has been goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi. The 34 year-old shot-stopper has been uniformly excellent this season, making a strong case for not only the league’s best keeper, but also perhaps its most valuable player thus far.
Nagoya Grampus suffered their first defeat of the season last weekend, losing 1-0 at home to Frontale in a tight contest at Toyota Stadium. Nagoya has had a bright start to the campaign, yet their momentum has potentially been stymied by the postponement of their tie with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, after three Nagoya players tested positive for Covid-19. The league is testing players rigorously and enacted its existing coronavirus protocol immediately. Nagoya has since been cleared to resume playing. It’s an unprecedented scenario, but one that may well occur with other teams throughout the season, raising potential issues regarding the re-scheduling of delayed fixtures, and how to manage squads that have been depleted due to positive tests.
Under Italian manager Massimo Ficcadenti, Nagoya hold the joint-best defensive record in the league and if they can win their current game in hand, they will rise to second in the current standings. They host seventh place Urawa Reds this coming weekend, who will still be disappointed to have shared the points with 16th place Shimizu S-Pulse last week; conceding an 86th minute equaliser from Brazilian striker Valdo, after a miscued clearance from young Socceroos defender Thomas Deng.
In brighter news for Aussie manager Peter Cklamovski, S-Pulse is unbeaten in their last three matches – a huge improvement on their early form. They are still routinely exposed on the break, however they have demonstrated commendable efficiency from dead-ball situations in recent weeks. They host a Consadole Sapporo side sitting in eighth spot. Consa can make life difficult for themselves – they have an in-form goalscorer in Takuma Arano, one of the most capable keepers in the league in Takanori Sugeno, but need to improve their defensive organisation to properly crack a top six position. Serial meanderers Vissel Kobe took advantage of this last week with a 3-2 victory, with Brazilian striker Douglas notching a goal and an assist. Kobe sit ninth and host Vegalta Sendai on Saturday, who are hovering one position above the relegation zone and winless in six.
Another team on a winless run is Tokyo FC – without a victory in three games. The side seems to rise and fall on the fortunes of its Brazilian contingent of Leandro, Diego Oliveira and Adailton. They are constantly the focus of Tokyo’s opportunities – perhaps to a fault. Tokyo creates enough opportunities to see off opponents, yet profligacy in front of goal has cost them recently. A prime example was last week’s shock 3-2 loss to relegation candidates Sagan Tosu. Sitting sixth in the table is nowhere near a crisis point for Tokyo, but manager Kenta Hasegawa will be well aware of the need to improve the side’s finishing against Cerezo Osaka this week, or look for a Plan B in attack. Sagan Tosu was lifted to 13th position with their first win of the season. The victory was clearly deeply felt by the squad, with forward Kaisei Ishii in tears after the game. Tosu will visit a resurgent Kashima Antlers side, which after making their worst start in history, has moved up to 12th position. Manager Antônio Carlos Zago’s message may be starting to take effect, with Kashima’s man of the moment Everaldo scoring five goals in his last four outings.
Round nine kicks off Saturday 8th August at 7:00pm, Australian Eastern Standard Time.
J1 League Table (07/08/2020)