By Justin Bodanac
The 2021 season of the J1 League has reached its quarter-mark at a break-neck pace. Last season’s success was a testament to the league’s commitment and agility in the face of the unfolding pandemic. It was even more incredible that they managed to do so with fans in the stadiums. This year, the pandemic is still ever-present, throwing in enough caveats and anomalies to once again create a season like never before.
VAR is back (unfortunately) but hasn’t been as detrimental to the flow of the game as it has been for the likes of the European leagues. The expanded field of 38 clubs (to account for no relegation last season) means that four teams will be on the chopping block come season’s end. This is even more pressing when considering the fact that seven clubs have managed just two wins or less in the ten rounds so far, creating a congested bottom half of the table. Matches that are postponed due to positive coronavirus tests will incur a 0-3 loss for the offending club if they cannot be rescheduled within an adequate timeframe. This already poses a colossal problem for last year’s runners-up Gamba Osaka, having missed their first five matches due to an outbreak at the club.
Furthermore, when Japan closed its borders during the pre-season, a litany of new foreign signings (including Aussie and K-League top scorer Adam Taggart) were locked out until the border was reopened in late March, only to then spend two additional weeks in quarantine. This means that most of new arrivals have trained for less than a week with their respective clubs and are yet to make any appearances on the pitch.
But enough with the exposition, on with the show…
2020 champions and league juggernauts Kawasaki Frontale were held 1-1 by a resolute Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Sunday. Akihiro Ienaga’s late first-half goal was cancelled out midway through the second term by Tsukasa Morishima’s rebounded effort, as Hiroshima battled without the ball and withstood Frontale’s dominant attack. Toru Oniki’s unbeaten side have already amassed a +22 goal difference and sit atop the league as they did for the vast majority of last season. But unlike 2020, there has been less canter and more grind in their victories. The effort of 31 year-old Brazilian veteran Leandro Damião has been the surprising source of much of their success – pressing and poaching his way to seven goals and six assists already. It’s possible that after last season’s onslaught, teams have figured out how to stymie the free-flow of Frontale to some degree – and seventh-placed Hiroshima can take credit for ending their five-game winning streak – even so, Frontale remains unbeaten.
Leandro Damião has been Kawasaki’s main provider and goal scorer this season.
Second-placed Nagoya Grampus has gone from strength-to-strength under current J1 Manager of the Month Massimo Ficcadenti, yet succumbed to surprise packets Sagan Tosu 2-1 in their first loss of the season. Nagoya has built its foundations on an excellent defensive unit that had conceded just one goal prior to the game (an Akira Yoshida own goal), but Aussie goalkeeper Mitch Langerak’s new league record of nine consecutive clean sheets would go no further. Daichi Hiyashi and Noriyoshi Sakai scored at both ends of the first half to put Nagoya behind for the first time this campaign. Nagoya was visibly rattled, lacked composure and was continually disrupted in the middle of the pitch by a well-organised Tosu side. Current J1 Player of the Month Sho Inagaki grabbed a late consolation goal, but Nagoya’s lack of a dependable central striker was laid bare. It’s been an exceptional turn-around for Sagan Tosu since last season. Kim Myung Hwi’s side has gone from perennial relegation battlers to a hardened defensive unit in little more than a pre-season. Nagoya is by far the biggest notch in their belt thus far and they will need to topple more teams of this calibre to have any hope of maintaining their position in third.
Cerezo Osaka beat Urawa Reds in a middling 1-0 victory at home on Sunday. Captain Yusuke Muruhashi’s scrappy goal was enough to see Cerezo consolidate their position in fourth and get their first win in four games. The departure of former manager Miguel Ángel Lotina at the end of last season hasn’t derailed their adherence to disciplined and efficient football, with new manager (and former player) Levir Culpi ably handling the transition. 38 year-old veteran Yoshito Ōkubo has been in excellent form recently with five goals already, and the protracted arrival of Aussie, and former K-League top scorer, Adam Taggart should only bolster Cerezo’s attack in future games. Urawa had the lion’s share of possession but produced little in goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa’s 500th match. Their lumbering form resumed after three wins on the trot, leaving them in tenth place. New manager Ricardo Rodriguez has barely worked a week with his squad – owing to arrival restrictions in Japan – and desperately needs to steady the ship of this once-great club.
Vissel Kobe played out a frustrating 0-0 draw with Shonan Bellmare on Saturday, with both teams failing to capitalise on their opportunities. Although it felt like two points dropped, Kobe is starting to use its abundance of resources in a manner befitting of Rakuten’s sizeable investment. Former player and current manager Atsuhiro Miura is getting the most out of a side that has underperformed for far too long. Currently in fifth spot, Kobe is now six games unbeaten, with in-form striker Kyogo Furuhashi notching six goals thus far. It’s pleasing to see Kobe operate without reliance on Andres Iniesta (currently making his way back to full fitness). He casts a log shadow at the club, and it will be interesting the see how Miura integrates him back into a side that is currently performing more successfully than previous seasons. Shonan meanwhile, linger in 13th place.
2019 champions Yokohama F. Marinos snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with three goals in the final 10 minutes of a lively encounter with Consadole Sapporo, winning 3-1 on Friday. J1 top scorer Anderson Lopes (nine goals in 2021) gave Sapporo a deserved lead just after halftime, as Mihailo Petrovic’s side played with trademark reckless abandon. The Marinos cut perturbed figures on the pitch as Sapporo’s chaos proved highly disruptive – goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno made a clutch of fine saves, while Lopes should have buried an earlier chance into an open net. However, three late strikes from Ado Onaiwu, the in-form Daizen Maeda (seven goals in 2021) and Élber, shell-shocked the hosts and gave Ange Postecoglou’s Marinos a crucial victory that extended their unbeaten run to eight games, leaving Sapporo somewhat cruelly in 16th place.
Consadole Sapporo striker and league top scorer Anderson Lopes.
FC Tokyo was undone 1-0 away from home by new boys Avispa Fukuoka on Saturday. Diego Oliveira provided the main threat in first half for Tokyo, but Fukuoka goalkeeper Masaaki Murakami ably denied each opportunity with some excellent reactions. Fukuoka grew into the game in the second half – taking the lead through a fortunate Bruno Mendes tap-in – and piled on the pressure late on, only to be denied by some last-ditch defending. Fukuoka has at times confused aggression for tactics this season, but this was a victory based on a solid offensive display and demonstrated why they are sitting respectably mid-table in their first season back in the J1 since 2016. Meanwhile, Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa will be rueing their disjointed displays on the pitch – only Frontale and Cerezo have score more goals, yet Tokyo has conceded more times than anyone outside the bottom two. They will need to address their defensive frailties to have any chance of competing for the ACL slots.
Elsewhere in the league, Kashima Antlers defeated Tokushima Vortis in a much-needed victory 1-0 away from home, Koki Machida scoring the only goal. Kashiwa Reysol emerged 1-0 victors after goalkeeper Kim Seung Gyu saved a 90th minute penalty to deny lowly host Ōita Trinita a share of their spoils, taking Kashiwa further away from the bottom. Shimizu S-Pulse drew 0-0 at Gamba Osaka, in a dull affair that produced just three shots on target. Finally, in the battle of the cellar dwellers, Vegalta Sendai earned a late 2-2 draw at Yokohama FC as Kyohei Yoshino poked home in injury time to secure a point.