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Thursday, May 24, 2012
J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK
Front-runners making most of early-season opportunity
Vegalta Sendai consolidated their position on top of the J. League with a 4-0 thrashing of Nagoya Grampus last weekend, but below the league leaders a clear pack of front-runners is beginning to take shape.
Vegalta established a five-point cushion ahead of their nearest challengers with Saturday's humbling of the 2010 champions, but with only one point separating second-place Sanfrecce Hiroshima from sixth-place FC Tokyo, the Tohoku side has no shortage of rivals.
Tokyo, with a game in hand over the rest of the top six, could well be the team most capable of closing the gap. Ranko Popovic's side has won three straight games despite the added commitment of Asian Champions League fixtures, and with substitute Kazuma Watanabe scoring a hat-trick in the space of 13 minutes in Sunday's 3-2 victory over Sagan Tosu, momentum is growing.
Sanfrecce have also done well to stay on Vegalta's coat-tails, never losing twice in succession and fighting back for a 3-2 win over Vissel Kobe on Saturday. The departure of manager Mihailo Petrovic and star striker Tadanari Lee over the winter raised serious questions over Sanfrecce's ability to compete, but former player Hajime Moriyasu has proved to be a galvanizing presence since taking over in the dugout.
Petrovic's new team, fifth-place Urawa Reds, are gradually gaining confidence after years of chronic underachievement, while another former J. League power, fourth-place Jubilo Iwata, have also impressed with national team striker Ryoichi Maeda providing the perfect focal point for Hitoshi Morishita's vibrant young side.
Jubilo's Shizuoka neighbors, third-place Shimizu S-Pulse, have also benefited from placing their faith in youth, and Toshiyuki Takagi and Genki Omae's outstanding form offers hope for a sustained challenge despite Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Reds.
The leading teams have all done well to maneuver themselves into their current positions, but it could be a different story when the grueling summer program arrives and the heat begins to sap legs in July and August.
With testing times ahead, an early stockpile of points could make all the difference.
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Kashima Antlers went into Saturday's game against Consadole Sapporo having failed to score in their previous three matches, but a 7-0 demolition of the league's bottom team provided the perfect tonic.
Antlers transformed their goal difference from -5 to +2 in one fell swoop with the biggest win so far in the league this season, but what was even more remarkable was the fact that seven different players managed to get themselves on the scoresheet.
"The most important thing was not to win by a big margin, but for the players to go out there, give their all and enjoy it," said Kashima manager Jorginho, whose side still lies 13th in the table. "As far as the result is concerned what will be will be, but first of all everything starts from giving it your all."
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Yokohama F. Marinos' recent blistering form has rendered their early-season results nothing more than a distant memory, but a 0-0 draw with Gamba Osaka on Saturday cooled the Kanagawa side's jets.
Marinos had risen from 17th to ninth in the table on the back of four straight wins ahead of Gamba's visit to Nissan Stadium, but a missed second-half penalty by Shunsuke Nakamura was a close as they came to making it five.
"We wanted to extend our winning streak, so it's disappointing just to come away with a draw," said manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, who saw his team keep its first clean sheet since April 7. "It's been a long time since we got through a game without conceding a goal, so I'd like to take the positives from that. Now we want to make sure we don't lose our momentum and get ready for the next game."
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Quotable: "I don't possess a magic bullet."
— Akira Nishino attempts to play down expectations after taking over as manager of 11th-place Vissel Kobe.