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Thursday, July 5, 2012

J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Reysol return from the dead to kickstart title challenge


Staff writer

Kashiwa Reysol's season seemed in tatters just two months ago, but after racking up six wins from their last seven games the defending champions suddenly look like serious contenders for another title.

News photo
On the move: Kashiwa Reysol will have to cope without right back Hiroki Sakai, who has joined Hannover in Germany. KYODO

Reysol appeared to have paid the price for last year's heroics during a sluggish start to the current campaign, loitering above the relegation places in early May having lost five of their opening nine games. A second-round exit from the Asian Champions League added weight to the notion that Nelsinho's side had been exposed as nothing more than a flash in the pan, but the response since then has proved otherwise.

Kashiwa moved into fourth place in the table with a 6-2 mauling of Gamba Osaka on Saturday, racing to a 3-0 lead by the 20th minute before Masakatsu Sawa completed his hat trick and his teammates ripped the hapless home side to shreds. Reysol now lie only five points behind leaders Vegalta Sendai, and momentum is steadily growing.

Given the demands brought on by Kashiwa's successful 2011, it is easy to understand why the Chiba side suffered a dip in form when the new campaign got under way. Maintaining a title challenge throughout the course of last season was no mean feat for a team that had spent the previous year in the second division, and the added workload of the Club World Cup and ACL was sure to take its toll.

That Reysol now seem to have got over the hump sends an ominous signal to the rest of the league, but a second straight title is still far from a foregone conclusion. The departure of influential right back Hiroki Sakai — who has joined Hannover in Germany — will be keenly felt, and the sheer number of teams in championship contention makes breaking clear of the pack a tricky task.

But Kashiwa has one thing that it did not have at this stage last year — J1 title-winning experience. If this year's race goes down to the wire again, it could make all the difference.

* * *

Italy striker Mario Balotelli's goal celebration after scoring in the Azzurri's 2-1 Euro 2012 semifinal win over Germany has now become so famous that it even has its own J. League tribute act.

Vissel Kobe forward Ken Tokura reacted to hitting a screamer from outside the box against Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday by ripping off his shirt and adopting the same granite-faced, muscle-flexing pose as the Italian No. 9, earning a 1-0 win for Vissel but also a yellow card from the unimpressed referee.

"Before the game we were all having dinner and the Italy v Germany game was on TV, so Balotelli's celebration after his goal became a hot topic of conversation," said Tokura. "The manager told me to keep the image of that goal imprinted on my mind during the game, but it seems I might have kept it there until after the celebration as well."

* * *

Hiroshi Kiyotake may not have been able to crown his final appearance for Cerezo Osaka with a goal on Saturday, but Yoichiro Kakitani made sure his Nuremburg-bound teammate left with a smile on his face.

Kiyotake took the field in Cerezo colors for the last time against Urawa Reds at Nagai Stadium, but left the game in the 81st minute with his side a goal down and seemingly on its way to a third consecutive defeat.

One Kakitani injury-time equalizer later, however, and the mood among the 36,723-strong crowd had changed completely.

"The atmosphere was like a national team game tonight," said Kiyotake, who was picked for Japan's Olympic squad on Monday. "We were making chances but we just couldn't finish them, so I'm glad Yoichiro got the job done in the end."

* * *

Quotable: "From the first to the last whistle, whatever kind of ball comes my way, whatever the situation, my job is to play with belief."

— Vegalta Sendai striker Wilson gives an insight into the league-leaders' mindset after scoring two goals in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.



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