The previous installments of this series have looked at teams in the top tier of Japanese football, but now we’re going to switch lanes and look at a team that is threatening to gatecrash the playoff party in the second tier. A party to which, conventional wisdom went, they weren’t to receive an invite for.

If you look beyond the fact that they have a 50-year old striker on the books, you’ll find a very interesting team – one which J2 expert @J2KantoBites is about to go in-depth on.

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1. Talk about a surprising turn of events! What on earth are Yokohama FC doing in the Play-Off race?

Surprising indeed! Predicting J2 is notoriously difficult, and so coming up with ‘reasons’ to ‘explain things’ doubly so – perhaps I should get a job in the Press Office at the White House?

The first point I want to make is that the boys from Mitsuzawa are definitely reaping the benefits of a relatively weak division (so far) in 2017. This has also benefitted Nagasaki and Tokyo Verdy, unlikely pre-season picks for the top six. Whilst Fukuoka, Nagoya and Shonan are clearly better teams than Yokohama, none of them have looked imperious for more than a game or two at a time. This was emphasized when Nagoya needed two (soft) penalties to beat Yokohama a few rounds ago.

The lack of a real ‘big gun’ at the summit has allowed quietly consistent, workmanlike teams (the aforementioned Yokohama, Nagasaki and Verdy) to almost barricade themselves into the Play-Off places over a number of rounds. Yokohama have been well-organized, competitive and hard to beat over the first seventeen matches. Coupled with a certain Norwegian-Moroccan that we’re going to talk about in a moment, that has been enough to get them into real Play-Off contention.

2. Ibba is the focus of this team now. What makes him so dangerous in this league?

I could wax lyrical about Abdurahim Laajab (Ibba) for five hundred words, or I could put it more succinctly: he is too good for J2 level. After he plundered 18 goals in a bang-average Yokohama side last season, I was waiting to see which J1 club (or top-division side further afield) would take him off Yokohama’s hands. He is a physical beast, but also an intelligent and quick-footed passer (he has played many times for Norway’s national futsal team in the past). He is a superb free-kick taker too, with that kind of technique which curls the ball past the goalkeeper without ever reaching full power. Beautiful to watch, and all the more so because it’s a (fairly) rare sight at this level.

Ibba’s sublime free-kick against Nagoya Grampus

I also like his attitude. Whenever he thinks the team’s concentration levels are dropping, he is very vocal about getting his teammates focused again. Considering a lot of J2 players tend to ‘coast’ through games (particularly if one side is a couple of goals ahead), it’s almost refreshing to see this at Mitsuzawa. Ibba is the first all-round forward Yokohama FC fans have been able to enjoy for a while.

This season, he’s scored 11 goals in 17 matches. The way he’s been playing, you wouldn’t bet against him hitting 30 this term. With a player like him, Yokohama can be forgiven for having a strategy of ‘Pass to Ibba (or Win a Free-Kick)’.

3. Calvin Jong-a-Pin and Shogo Nishikawa have been almost ever present at the back this year. What kind of defensive partnership do they make?

This is a more difficult question to answer, since Ibba is always the guy I end up watching! The boring answer is ‘a very good one’, since Yokohama have the best defensive record in the league after 17 rounds (12 goals conceded, one fewer than Verdy and Matsumoto). Jong-a-Pin is an experienced campaigner, who would probably be in J1 if it weren’t for his (rather patchy) injury record. Although he has never had a particularly good game when I’ve seen him ‘live’, it’s obvious that he is having a positive influence on Nishikawa. He (Nishikawa) is often dominant in the air, and has his name sung to the tune of 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ (what more can I say?) by home supporters. However, it’s worth noting that Nishikawa was benched for the win over Yamaguchi last time out, with Masaki Watanabe preferred alongside ‘Calla’.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but Yokohama’s first seventeen games really have been a team effort this season. With that in mind, I have to give a shout-out to goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka, and left-back Ryo Tadokoro, who have played their part in the back line as well.

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4. I hesitate to say this, but can you foresee a scenario where Yokohama FC are in the Play-Off places come the end of the season?

Surely you don’t think you can get me to embarrass myself with a prediction that easily?! Well, just this once. Considering that Yokohama are in second place with over a third of the season played, I think they’re earned the right to be taken seriously. If they can stay on the same track that they’ve been on since Round 1, there’s no reason to think that they can’t be in the mix come October and November.

The potential flies in the ointment include the chance of injury, or loss of form, for Ibba. It’s hard to overstate his importance to the team, but at 32 years of age, he’ll do well to make himself available for all 42 matches (plus the potential Play-Offs). Perhaps he can take tips from King Kazu on looking after himself? I also remain worried that the rest of the J.League will wise up at some point, and just come in with a big offer to buy him. Any team struggling at the foot of J1 would be well-advised to take a punt on him when the transfer window is open (I predict it’ll be Omiya, with Pecnik or Mrdja sent in the opposite direction).

There’s also the potential for some of this year’s underwhelming sides, such as Matsumoto, JEF United and Kyoto, to finally get their acts together in the second half of the season. If they start winning consistently, Yokohama’s small squad might find the pressure of winning every week hard to handle (you knew I was going to mention JEF, didn’t you?).

Having said that, Yokohama didn’t start the season with any real expectation of reaching the Play-Offs in 2017. Being second after 17 games, after being one of the unheralded sides in pre-season, could give them the belief and self-confidence needed to get the job done.

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