(Header photo from @bellmare_staff)
The Kanagawa coastline is starting to get busy. Summer is coming, and the beaches are starting to get full of the surfers, loafers & people that just want to get away from the city for the day. But beaches & Eno-Shima aren’t the only attractions in this part of Japan, because if you head to Hiratsuka you’ll see current J2 (joint) leaders Shonan Bellmare taking their seemingly customary position at the the top of the J2 table. Very much a yo-yo club, Bellmare are on the upwards trajectory of the yo-yo process, but how have they done it this year?
To find out, Regista asked Shonan Bellmare supporter @NicolasTscr to give us a look at why Shonan, once again, find themselves at high altitude in J2.
1. At the halfway point of the season Bellmare are joint top of J2. So far, so good?
Not perfect but still OK! This is how we can evaluate the 2017 Bellmare so far. Let’s have a little throwback to analyze it. As you know the 2016 J League 1 season was really painful for the green and blue part of the Kanagawa prefecture. Ending with a well-deserved relegation after two years in J1.
The off-season didn’t hurt that much despite the fact Daisuke Kikuchi (Urawa Reds) and Yuto Misao (Antlers) both left the club. The other key players like Kaoru Takayama, André Bahia, Naoki Yamada and Dinei chose to stay to help the club get back to the top division of the J League. We even got some good surprises with Yota Akimoto’s return from Tokyo and Hiroki Akino’s loan.
The season started well with 13 points in the first 5 games. But here came the drama with Takayama’s long term injury contracted vs JEF United… Eight months out, season ended in March for the soul of Shonan… More than a very good player, Kaoru is a leader and the team’s captain. We instantly felt the squad wasn’t that confident without him and bad results came quickly. Especially for home games. We won only one of the next six games at the BMW Hiratsuka Stadium! Thankfully we were kind of able to compensate for it in our away days, and our promotion contenders were back.
But today the doubt seems to not be there anymore, thanks to a perfect run in June with four victories in a row, the latest vs Nagoya (2-1). To beat three direct rivals makes this early in summer even more enjoyable for Shonan supporters. 43 points at the halfway point is a very decent performance.
(photo from @bellmare_staff)
2. One thing that has surprised me has his year is the lack of goals (25 in 21 games at time of writing). How has Shonan’s style of play been this year?
You just identified our main problem this season. Dinei has done well so far (especially recently) considering his few injuries but he is the only threat among our strikers… Noda arrived from Nagoya but got an injury before the season started and Yoshihito Fujita has never been a really good scorer. After 21 games we only have five players to have scored more than one goal – and Dinei is the only available striker on this shortlist! Kikuchi, Sugioka and Okamoto are the three others, a DM and our two full-backs… Our regretted captain is the missing one.
Midfield has always been a major asset with the “Shonan style”. It’s still true in 2017 with some very good players like Kikuchi, Akino and Toshiki Ishikawa. I just have higher expectations about Yuta Kamiya. Such a disappointment so far… We can also consider Naoki Yamada and 17 year-old Mitsuki Saito (next big thing in Shonan IMO) as midfielders even if they are playing with more offensive responsibilities. They are all very good technical players, always playing for the team first.
But our biggest strength so far, and this is unusual for Bellmare, is the defense. André Bahia is an absolute rock this season and is bringing the leadership the team needs. That’s also why our youngsters like Daiki Sugioka and Miki Yamane are so brilliant. Tsuyoshi Shimamura and Keisuke Tsuboi are still reliable and add a lot of experience to the back three. Even Takuya Okamoto has stepped up on the right wing, scoring three times like Sugioka. I will never forget his 91th minute goal winner (vs Kyoto Sanga), just in front of my eyes for my first ever home game HAHA!
3. Who have been the best players so far this his year?
If i have to choose only three players I’d say André Bahia, Daiki Sugioka and Shunsuke Kikuchi. About Sugioka we can also say he ended the U20 World Cup with Japan as a starter, which means a lot about his qualities.
4. Quite a few people were surprised at the signing of Omiya forward Dragan Mrdja, but he looks like a great acquisition. How do you think he will make Shonan better?
I was hoping for another striker this summer and was thinking about Patric. But I’m definitely NOT disappointed with Dragan Mrdja! Shonan fans are hoping the former Omiya Ardija player will bring a bit of “killer instinct” in front of the goal. The team really needs a second offensive threat. That’s why he is here. The Serbian was excellent in the 2015 J2 (19 goals in 36 games) and was promoted in the end with the Squirrels. Can the story repeat itself?
Dragan Mrdja in training with his new club (photo: Bellmare Twitter)
5. At the time of writing, you are seven points clear of third place. Do you see automatic promotion for Bellmare this year?
I always believed in an immediate come-back in J1. Even more right now considering the mess that J2 is in below us and Avispa. I’m pretty confident we can even be crowned J2 champions despite the fact Fukuoka has a good squad and similar strengths. Their 3-0 victory in May was kind of flattering to be honest and i hope we will get our revenge next time haha.
Positive – and fighting – words from Nicolas!! Cho Kwi-jae has seemingly once again prepared a Shonan team that is ready for promotion. Seven points clear at this stage, and armed with a relatively fresh Dragan Mrdja, the Tanabata stars are aligning once again for a successful promotion push.
Nicolas is crazy about Shonan Bellmare, but also the J.League in general and you can follow his thoughts in both English & French (clever guy) on Twitter at @NicolasTscr