Yesterday marked the first road marker in the race for relegation. A couple of caveats. First, it’s very early. We could see one, two, or three different teams stuck in relegation territory come week 34. Second, it’s never too early to panic. If you haven’t won this season, might be a good idea to think about winning once before the cherry blossoms wither and die.
Cool Beans? Cool Beans!
THE FIRST RELEGATION SIX POINTER OF THE SEASON!
Next week has a marquee matchup featuring Shonanigans versus Kofoolery (I’m sorry, it’s April).
I know it’s only week 5 but both teams are in desperate need of a win. Unfortunately, both are also facing a similar crisis along their back lines. Kofu go into next weeks match without the services of evergreen defender Yukio Tsuchiya (injury) and Hideomi Yamamoto (red card suspension). In the long term, this might be a benefit for Kofu….they need to find eventual replacements for an aging backline and this forces them to do that. Short term, it’s a problem considering that they base their entire game plan on a stout back line.
Shonan opted to replace first team choices Andre Bahia and Takuya Okamoto with Tsuyoshi Shimomura and Keisuke Tsuboi. Unfortunately for the Kanagawa side, the result was another loss and two more goals allowed. Bellmare has yet to keep an opponent under 2 goals in league play. The problem was exacerbated when defensive midfielder Shunsuke Kikuchi was ruled for 8 months with an injury. Last week, Cho Kwi Jae opted to bring in journeyman midfielder Aria Jasuru Hasegawa after his disappointing stint in Spain. How he connects with Paulinho in the midfield is going to determine whether or not Shonan survives this year.
Next week’s match will be an interesting contrast in styles. Shonan is a team that likes to attack and press. They are a strong possession team and like to push the ball up. The problem with their system this year has been twofold. First they don’t have a reliable finisher up front. The Quirino, Hanato, and Fujita pu-pu platter of failed strikers has been less than stellar thus far. Numero Dos, Shonan is extremely susceptible to countering. They tend to push up in numbers. The downside to that is that it puts a lot of pressure on their shaky back line. Cho has been struggling to find a decent replacement for Wataru Endo (and Yuta Akimoto to a lesser extent).
In theory, this is a perfect opponent for the pack and counter style that is the preference of Yamanashi’s finest. The only team in the top 2 levels of the J-league pyramid who opts to play a 5 back defense, Kofu has made it clear that they don’t have any real ambition to press on offense. Kofu has one threat on offense right now, and his name is Cristiano. The former Kashiwa striker has put up nearly half of Kofu’s shots this year. A perennial problem for Kofu has been the lack of scoring chances created by the squad. Offseason signing Billy Celeski got his first league start in Friday’s loss to Urawa but didn’t really get the chance to be a creator after Kofu went down a man early. Satoru Sakuma is hoping that their newest signing, Nigerian striker Derek Chuka Ogbu can help alleviate some of the scoring pressure off of Cristiano and make the team a multi-dimensional threat.
I imagine this match will come down to whomever scores first. If Shonan gets on the board first, it forces Kofu to come out of their shell and try to attack more. Looking at the 4-0 loss against Kawasaki, that’s not something they really want to do. If Kofu gets on the board first, they pack the back and absorb attacks. That plays right into Shonan’s weak point. Might be a little early, but I’m tempted to say it’s a must win for both teams.
WHO ELSE SHOULD WORRY?
Fukuoka and Kashiwa are the easy answers, so I will pass on getting into those two. I’ve been slightly surprised by the competitiveness of both Kobe and Nagoya….I’m still not buying either one of those teams, but for now they look like they are on solid ground. Omiya and Jubilo are in decent positions for promoted teams, neither has put together complete games but they have ground out some results…again, I’ll pass on analyzing them for the moment.
Niigata and Sendai have some issues but for now they aren’t in the panic area yet. Sendai have had to deal with injury issues and have struggled to put goals on the board. Niigata have had similar problems to Shonan with a very leaky defense. Niigata have a more competent supply of scoring threats and a shutout against Fukuoka probably did wonders for the confidence of the defense but I’m not convinced they are out of danger yet.
Tosu seems to be the team that sets off alarm bells for me. They haven’t been playing particularly good or bad. The two losses on the road against Yokohama and Kashima weren’t inexcusable by any means. Those are games you expect them to lose. The win against Fukuoka wasn’t entirely impressive and draws against Kofu and Kashiwa at home aren’t things to brag about. Sagan is in a dangerous place right now because they are front loaded with home matches against weaker teams. Right now they’re dropping points and that’s something that will cost them later in the season if they get dragged into the dogfight. Their next two matches are against an in form Kawasaki side on the road and a slightly surging Kobe side at home. I think they are still suffering from the midfield talent exodus and their confidence could go with a long winless streak.
THE RELEGATIONISTAN HOT 3
1. The shocking scheduling for Saitama’s super squad
I guess a big congratulations are in order for current table toppers Urawa. However, I must point out the fact that they have had a pretty easy early slate of matches. Urawa doesn’t have a league game outside of the greater Kanto area until week 13, when they head down to Tosu. (Urawa has the advantage of not having to prepare for a midweek match, while Tosu has Nabisco Cup against Fukuoka). The team has had matches against the current bottom four in J1 (claiming victories in all four) and 11th place Jubilo Iwata (which they lost to at home).
I understand the need to “help” ACL clubs with softer early schedules but there’s a limit. I think they’ve given Urawa a real advantage that other ACL teams haven’t been given and that puts a bit of a taint on their early season exploits. Not impressed with J League schedulers this year.
While Jay Bothyroyd has grabbed early headlines for Jubilo with his 4 goals, I still stick to my opinion that Adailton is the more impressive player. Bothroyd’s size and nose for goals always make him a dangerous player, but in the three games I’ve seen both players appear in, Adailton has been the creative force pushing the team forward. Pushing along the left side, Adailton has a combination of size, speed, and skill that gives him an advantage over most J League sidebacks. His finishing touch was a bit off but I’d argue he was the most dangerous player at Nack 5. It was a bit of a relief to see him pulled off near the end of the match.
I’m an Adailton guy.
3. Changing Leagues
I’m starting to wonder if guys have trouble dropping down to J2 after playing in J1. This thought popped into my head after seeing the trials and tribulations of Omiya’s rotating bands of centerbacks. Last year, captain Kosuke Kikuchi was a hot mess during his year in J2. The team seemed shaky with him as an “anchor” along the backline. Backup Shunsuke Fukuda put in more impressive performances during his time filling in when Kikuchi was out with injuries or suspensions. During the offseason, I put out the proposition that it should be Fukuda starting at centerback and not Kikuchi. Fast forward to this year and Kikuchi has put in solid performances in the 3 and a half matches he’s appeared in. the team has allowed a meager 1 goal in his 7 halves of play. Dating back to 2013, the Kikuchi-Komoto combination is undefeated in 13 J1 matches. Meanwhile, poor Fukuda was victimized for 7 goals allowed in his 3 halves of play. I can understand the struggles of a player who has very little experience in a higher level league. What I have trouble understanding is a guy playing well in the top level after looking like a disaster against weaker opponents. Is it just familiarity or is something else in play? I’ll have to think about that more.