Spring. The time when everyone is positive. New shoots of life spring from the ground. New pearls of beautifulness blossom from the trees, and everyone in Japan is looking forward to a new beginning.

Except Steve Barme.

As president of Relegationistan, he dwells on only the negative points of life. It is a hard existence, but someone has to do it – and in this installment, it hits a bit too close to home. Take away, Sir…..

It’s not a particularly surprising or original insight, but there is a difference between J1 and J2. The three newly promoted squads are finding that out quickly. Yesterday’s big matchup between the holders of the respective titles in J1 and J2 was a clear indication of that. Sanfrecce ran Omiya off the pitch, exploiting the left side of the defense with long through balls to Peter Utaka early. Time and time and time again, Sanfrecce were able to expose the midfield combination of Tomonobu Yokoyama and Yuzo Iwakami and isolate Keigo Numata.

That was a classic case of a good team exerting it’s will against a team that wasn’t ready to compete at the top level. Especially one that was not equipped to handle the speed of J1. Not really shocking when you consider that Omiya only has two players on their roster who appeared in top level matches last year.

At times, the Sunday match took on the feel of a middle round Emperor’s Cup tie.  You had a defending champion taking on an upstart. You had the same defending champion feeling their way around the offensive box before inevitably breaking down the weaker squad. You had a comically one-sided referee giving fouls to the “right team” while ignoring fouls seconds before against the weaker squad. You had a moment where the upstart looked like they could possibly get back into the match before the champion crushes their hopes with a goal against the run of play. And you had the pile on at the end. It didn’t feel like a normal J League match.

 Should Omiya worry after giving up 7 goals in back to back losses to the past two champions? Yes, a little. It’s not a good thing when the defense gets exposed but nobody really expected the team to have 6 points in a tough early stretch. The real test on whether or not Omiya is ready for J1 will come against a slate of matches versus teams who are closer to Omiya’s level on paper.

THE RELEGATIONISTAN HOT 3

1.  MORE OMIYA

God knows I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but if you are going to play a limited set of central midfielders and diminutive sidebacks, you need all 10 field players to help out on the defensive end. In year three, Akihiro Ienaga still has not gotten the memo on that. Omiya’s marquee player arguably has the most creative talent on the team.  In terms of effort however, he is severely lacking. Hopefully with a weeks slate of Nabisco Cup matches on the horizon, Hiroki Shibuya opts to try some combinations without their “main headliner” in the lineup. The pairing I’d be most interested in seeing is the combination of former Red Star teammates in a two top formation.

Even if it was just for a half. Until Shibuya removes the sacred label from this offensive cow, Omiya won’t be able to see what exactly is their best team. That’s a pity.

 I’ve been more shocked by the lack of chemistry between centerbacks Hiroyuki Komoto and Shunsuke Fukuda. Last year, the pairing was good for an undefeated mark in J2 but has been exposed for 7 goals in 135 minutes of play. Even more shocking has been the drop since losing captain Kosuke Kikuchi. While it looked like there were real cracks in the Kikuchi/Komoto pairing at the end of last season, this year has seen a water tight performance by the two. In fact, dating back to their last pairing in J1 in 2012, the combo is undefeated in 12 straight J1 matches. The front office is going to have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to try and bring in a decent defender from one of the other Asian countries this year, or ship out seldom used wing Mateus in order to fill a third foreign slot. These are decisions they are going to have to make in next week or so before the spring window closes.

2.JUBILO EXPECTATIONS?

The return of the three time J League Champions to division one football has been a bit of a mixed bag. The early star of the season has been Jay Bothroyd and his 4 goals in 3 matches. Adailton has been another story altogether. The main problem for Jubilo has been the lack of control on the defensive end. This season, Jubilo has been susceptible to counter-attacks and headers in the box. Thanks to some stellar play by Polish goalkeeper Krzysztof Kaminski, Jubilo has managed to hold onto points late in matches. Saturday saw the Shizuoka side get to the magic number of 5 in 5, but it wasn’t pretty. A combination of good Bothroyd finishing, a dodgy PK call and some heroic clearances from Kaminski and the defense saw the squad salvage a point against cellar dweller Avispa Fukuoka. Next week will see the team challenged by the speed of Jin Izumisawa and the big presence of Dragan Mrdja. How they cope with those threats will determine whether or not they can grab three points against another fellow promoted squad.

3.CURSE OF THE PLAYOFF WINNER

Unlike their fellow promoted sides, Avispa have not gotten their fair share of points. One could argue that they have actually played better than Omiya or Jubilo. A rough early schedule with 3 of their four matches on the road combined with some unflattering calls.  The squad still needs to figure out it’s defensive schemes and have keeper Lee Bum Young settle in. The good news for Avispa is that it looks like the one-two punch of Hisashi Jogo and Wellington is a legitimate J1 strike force, something that Oita, Tokushima. and Yamagata were not able to feature in their collective promotion disasters. I’m not a prognosticator by nature (or naughty for that matter) but I do think that we could see Avispa pull themselves out of Relegation territory in their upcoming 4 game stretch. Remember though, I’m also the guy who said that Nagoya was going to be a disaster, Adailton was going to better that Jay Bothroyd, and Pedro Junior’s career was effectively over. So there’s that.    

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