And then there were three. Two familiar contenders, one plucky outsider and four league games are all that stand between Kashiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka, Nagoya Grampus and the J. League title.
Autumn is especially beautiful across the Kantō Plain, when the deciduous leaves fall and a mellow sunlight light frames the back streets and alleys of one of the world's most populous regions. That's true even in the gritty industrial Chiba town of Kashiwa, where the locals are hoping their promoted upstarts can win back to back championships.
Kashiwa Reysol coasted through J2 last season, holding off the challenge of Ventforet Kofu to win the second division by ten points. At the helm was grizzled Brazilian coach Nelsinho, whose association with Japanese football is so lengthy his first club Verdy was still based in Kawasaki. The much-travelled tactician won the J. League with Verdy and later took over at the club formerly known as Nagoya Grampus Eight, before embarking on a peripatetic waltz around his native Brazil.
He's back in the J. League now and Nelsinho's knowledge of Brazilian has proved especially useful in the realm of player recruitment. In 2010 he signed Leandro Domingues from Bahia club Vitoria and watched contentedly as the playmaker steered the Sun Kings to the second tier title. This year he drafted in veteran Jorge Wagner from Sao Paulo and the versatile attacking talent has produced a stellar campaign. Add to that the goals of strikers Junya Tanaka and Hideaki Kitajima and it's no surprise Kashiwa's sheer attacking strength has propelled them to the top of the table.
Standing in Kashiwa's way are defending champions Nagoya Grampus. The Aichi side broke their long trophy drought by winning the J. League for the first time last season, employing the not-so-novel tactic of simply signing the best players from rival teams. Former Urawa Reds talisman Marcus Tulio Tanaka and ex-Yokohama F. Marinos defender Hayuma Tanaka were joined this season by one-time Shimizu S-Pulse star Jungo Fujimoto and ex-Vissel Kobe speedster Kensuke Nagai - widely regarded as one of the most promising talents in Asian football. It's a tried-and-true tactic and combined with Australian international Josh Kennedy's unquenchable thirst for goals, Nagoya have slowly muscled their way up the standings and are currently breathing down Kashiwa's neck in the race for the championship.
Sandwiched between the pair are Gamba Osaka, who have endured a strange campaign at their Suita city home. The Osakans started slowly and sold prolific striker Adriano to Qatari club Al-Jaish, after he'd scored nine goals in just eight league games. They looked like they'd struggle without him, until the arrival of Rafinha from J2 side Thespa Kusatsu. The Brazilian has made his compatriot look positively sluggish, blasting home 10 goals in 14 league games - including a hat-trick against Kawasaki Frontale - and just as importantly laying on several more for strike partner Lee Keun-Ho, who has suddenly transformed into one of the most dynamic strikers in the league. With Yasuhito Endo pulling the strings in midfield and plenty of big-match experience behind them, it's unlikely Gamba will be the first to blink in a tense three-team tussle for the title.
Nagoya arguably have the easiest run home, while all three teams face tough looking away trips on the final day of the campaign. Grampus are on the road to Big Swan Stadium where they will face Albirex Niigata, while Gamba Osaka face a daunting trip to the parochial Nihondaira Stadium to take on mid-table outfit Shimizu S-Pulse. It's Kashiwa who look set to face the toughest trip of all, as they cross the Kantō Plain to take on a Urawa Reds side battling relegation.
Urawa's wretched campaign is perhaps best summed up by the fact they sacked coach Zeljko Petrovic just a fortnight out from a League Cup final. The final straw was a 1-0 home defeat to Saitama city rivals Omiya Ardija, which prompted Petrovic to claim he'd resign at the end of the season. He wasn't given the chance, and former youth team coach Takafumi Hori is the man charged with the task of ensuring one of Japan's most popular clubs avoids relegation for the second time in their checkered history.
Urawa are locked in a dogged battle with Ventforet Kofu to avoid the final relegation place - Montedio Yamagata and Avispa Fukuoka are already doomed - and Kofu's lanky Japan international Mike Havenaar is on a single-handed mission to prolong Kofu's stay in the top flight. The man known as "Mike" has scored 16 of Kofu's 36 goals so far and with European clubs rumoured to be taking an interest in the 194-centimetre giant, a player who recently scored his first international goals for Japan could be set for a barnstorming finish to the campaign.
There's little doubt another thrilling finale lies in store for one of the world's most entertaining leagues. Will Kashiwa Reysol hold their nerve and become the first team to win back to back J2 and J1 championships? Will Gamba Osaka spoil the party and destroy the dreams of Nagoya Grampus in the process? And can Urawa Reds shake off Ventforet Kofu in the quest to maintain their top-flight status? Time will tell, but as the first of the winter chills rustles the falling leaves on Japan's busy thoroughfares and streets, the J. League is only just starting to heat up.
Copyright © Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com
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