The J1 League continues at an almost ridiculous pace, with 16 rounds now completed and the season nearing its halfway point. Since our last Pulse Check in August a staggering eight rounds have transpired, with domestic cup fixtures also played on top of an already loaded schedule. The season has been impacted by Covid-19 at nearly every level – whether in response to an outbreak or in the measures designed to avoid one. VAR and goal-line technology has been disbanded, motivated by pressure to restart the season quickly. The move had direct consequences on league leaders Kawasaki Frontale, who registered their only defeat of the season to Nagoya Grampus in Matchweek 11 after a clear goal for Frontale was judged not to have crossed the line. With no goal-line technology to review, the decision stood. Sagan Tosu spent four weeks out of action as manager Kim Myiung Hwi and players tested positive for the virus. Games have been rescheduled in frantic and opportunistic ways to ensure the prolonged sidelining of entire teams doesn’t derail the season. Relegation has also been suspended for this season. If 75% of all matches are completed in the J2 and J3, then two teams from each will be promoted to the division above. This gives the potential for the 18-team J1 to balloon to 20 teams for the 2021 season, increasing the relegation zone from three spots to four.
Continuing to set the gold standard on top of the league is Kawasaki Frontale. Toru Oniki’s side put on a master class against visiting Sanfrecce Hiroshima last weekend, running out 5-1 victors. The goals were shared amongst Frontale’s wealth of attacking options, but Ao Tanaka’s 14th minute opener exemplified them at their best. Linking effortlessly with Miki Yamane on the right side, the duo cut through Sanfrecce’s defensive line with a series of one-touch passes, allowing Tanaka to slot a first-time ball passed Keisuke Osako’s near post. Sanfrecce have lumbered this season – notching wins mainly against struggling sides – and sit tenth on the table. Frontale have now scored 52 goals from 17 games, presenting the distinct possibility that they could score 100 goals before season’s end. Oniki – who rose through Frontale’s hierarchy from youth coach in 2007 to manager in 2017 – is getting the absolute best out of a squad that has the ability to rotate yet remain consistent in its results. It also shirks the stereotype of certain J-League sides that are perceived to rely heavily on or favour foreign signings, with 84% of goals coming from domestic talent. Yu Kobayashi leads Frontale’s stacked scoresheet with 8 goals, while Yasuto Wakizaka has supplied a league-leading 5 assists. Frontale travels to Saitama Stadium this weekend to face Urawa Reds, while Sanfrecce travels to Kashiwa.
Sitting in a well-deserved second spot is Cerezo Osaka, who notched their fifth-straight win 2-1 against a frustrating Yokohama F. Marinos side at the Nissan Stadium last weekend. Ange Postecoglou’s side had the lion’s share of opportunities in the first half but nothing to show for it. Erik then put the hosts into a deserved lead in the 52nd minute, only for Cerezo skipper Hiroshi Kiyotake to take advantage of some poor goalkeeper positioning with a long-range curler six minutes later. Makito Ito’s 65th minute red card turned the balance in Cerezo’s favour and Toshiyuki Takagi struck late to ensure it stayed that way. There is no doubt that Cerezo are vying for the most in-form team in the league at the moment; what they lack in style they more than make up for in their efficiency and discipline. Manager Miguel Angel Lotina (who guided Espanyol to Copa del Rey triumph in 2006) has set up a team that can wait for the right moment and make it count. Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou, on the other hand, is cutting a terse figure and with good reason. Marinos faced three of the top four teams in succession, losing each game from a winning position. They sit eighth on the table and travel to Tosu on Saturday in search of a much-needed victory. Cerezo will host Kashima Antlers.
Tokyo FC sits third on the table and has steadily risen up the league since early August. Manager Kenta Hasegawa would be slightly disappointed to come away from Vissel Kobe on the weekend with a 2-2 result. Kobe struck first in the 24th minute through Takuya Yasui, after Kyogo Furuhashi did well to spot his run into the box. Tokyo dominated the second half early, looking good on the break. Kyosuke Tagawa’s hard cut-back across goal found Adailton in the 50th minute, and it was all smiles in attack when Diego Oliveira put them into the lead in the 58th minute after a well-worked transition. Hasegawa had omitted Oliveira for the previous two matches and it looked to be just what the striker needed. This sparked an even bigger return to the pitch in the 59th minute – Andres Iniesta – who has missed weeks with a persistent ankle injury. Kobe is winless in their last six league outings, and there’s no doubt that Iniesta’s absence in midfield has been a major factor. He supplied the crucial assist in the 94th minute as Brazilian forward Dankler headed home his free kick to snatch a crucial point. 11th placed Kobe travel to Nagoya on Saturday, while Tokyo face struggling Vegalta Sendai at home on Sunday.
Nagoya Grampus was stunned in a 3-2 loss to minnows Yokohama FC last weekend in Yokohama. Massimo Ficcadenti’s fourth-placed Grampus side has been defensively sound all season, but a recent dip in form has seen them lose three of their last four games across all competitions, conceding three goals in each loss. The game started brightly for Grampus as Yutaka Yoshida’s 12th minute screamer put them ahead. Yuki Soma’s cross eluded all targets, only for Yoshida to appear on the edge of the box and rocket a first-time half volley into the top bins. Yokohama instantly increased their pressure and in the 19th minute Grampus defender Yuichi Maruyama’s errant toe poke inadvertently set up Koki Saito for an easy equaliser. Three minutes later Yokohama took the lead – Masakazu Tashiro’s corner created a goalmouth scramble, from which Takaaki Shichi took advantage. Yokohama peppered Mitch Langerak’s goal and it seemed that Ficcadenti had underestimated his opposition by leaving his main creative outlet Mateus on the bench. In the 63rd minute his introduction (along with compatriot Joao Schmidt) turned the momentum. Grampus pounced on a moment of madness by Yokohama keeper Yuta Minami – stripping the shot-stopper of the ball on his own goal line. Mateus tucked home the equaliser from Schmidt’s lay-off. Yokohama maintained their physicality and in the 78th minute were well rewarded for their persistence. Takuya Matsuuda outmuscled the Nagoya defence and sent Yuji Senuma through to put the winner past Langerak at the near post. This wobble in form comes at an inopportune time for Nagoya, as teams around them vie for a top three spot. But this can be tempered with the knowledge that they have up to three games in hand on their direct rivals. Yokohama has lost more games then anyone outside the bottom two and sits in 14th spot. Nagoya hosts the aforementioned Vissel Kobe on Saturday, while Yokohama FC travel to Oita Trinita on Sunday.
In fifth place and currently experiencing a tremendous return to form is Antonio Carlos Zago’s Kashima Antlers. Kashima continued to salvage this season – after their worst start in history – with a 2-1 away victory over struggling Shimizu S-Pulse in Shizuoka. Brazilian forward Everaldo gave Kashima the lead in the 29th minute, after they won the ball back deep in S-Pulse territory. Leo Silva combined crisply with the striker, allowing him to take the shot early and slot passed Takuo Okubo in goal for his tenth strike of the campaign. Three minutes later Shoma Doi extended the lead in similar fashion as Kashima once again pressured S-Pulse off the ball in their own half. This time it was Ryuji Izumi’s backheel that allowed Doi to run on for his fifth goal in all competitions. Substitute Teerasil Dangda struck late for S-Pulse with a good turn on a tight angle, but in truth it was all one-way traffic for Kashima. Zago’s squad are on a five-game winning streak, while Peter Cklamovski’s S-Pulse are in polar opposite form – with six losses on the trot – and have conceded the most goals in the competition. Kashima face Cerezo in Osaka on Saturday, while S-Pulse visit fellow cellar dwellers Shonan Bellmare the same day.
Rounding out the top six, Urawa Reds snatched a last-minute winner in a seven-goal thriller at Consadole Sapporo on the weekend. The win steadies Urawa’s inconsistent form, while Sapporo sink further down the table to 13th position – with one win in ten. Urawa forward Kenyu Sugimoto scored a seven-minute brace to set up an early lead, but Sapporo marksmen Jay Bothroyd replied in even quicker fashion, notching his brace in four minutes. All of this with barely half an hour played. In the 67th minute, Sugimoto then turned a cross into his own net, only for Sapporo goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno to misjudge a clearance at the other end and allow Yomoaki Makino an easy 75th minute equaliser. Kai Shibato secured the points for Urawa in the 94th minute, tucking home from close range after Quenten Martinus’ ball into the box. Sapporo host Gamba Osaka on Saturday, while Urawa take on leaders Kawasaki Frontale on Sunday.
Elsewhere in the league, Sagan Tosu extended their post-quarantine run by winning 2-1 against a visiting Kashiwa Reysol. League top scorer Michael Olunga put Kashiwa ahead in the 24th minute with his 16th goal of the season, before Daichi Hayashi and Riki Harakawa struck back for Tosu on either side of the break. 15th placed Tosu are an anomaly – they have the second best defence in the league combined with the worst attack. Shonan Bellmare lifted itself off the bottom of the standings with a shock 1-0 win against Gamba Osaka, Kazunari Ono scoring the only goal of the game in the 75th minute. Early hopes of a title push have all but faded for Gamba, firmly entrenched mid-table. Finally, Oita Trinita secured a vital 3-0 win away at Vegalta Sendai, lifting them up to 12th on the table.
To accommodate rescheduled matches, four catch-up fixtures were played on Wednesday 16th September. The standings have been adjusted to account for results:
- Sagan Tosu 0-2 Consadole Sapporo (Round 12)
- Tokyo FC 2-3 Oita Trinita (Round 24)
- Yokohama F. Marinos 3-0 Shimizu S-Pulse (Round 24)
- Vissel Kobe 0-1 Cerezo Osaka (Round 25)
J1 LEAGUE TABLE