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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

SOCCER SCENE

J. League title chase enters home stretch


The J. League title race going down to the wire is nothing new, but this year's championship is shaping up to be the tightest yet.

Andrew McKirdy

Only three points separate the top six teams with three games left to go, and, to borrow a phrase from Alex Ferguson, it's squeaky-bum time in Japan.

The season has taken so many twists and turns that predictions at this stage are futile, but here's a rough guide to what might, and might not, happen.

Kashima Antlers (54 points, +23 goal difference): Trinita (a), Jubilo (h), Consadole (a)

What once looked like a clear charge toward the finish line has become a pained stagger, with the September loss of injured captain Mitsuo Ogasawara in particular taking a heavy toll.

Last year it was Kashima that came from behind to snatch the title on the final day, but now Oswaldo Oliveira's men are there to be shot at.

In Antlers' favor is a squad that knows how to clinch a championship and a goal difference unlikely to be matched by the other contenders.

A meeting with Jubilo, fighting for its life at the bottom of the table, could be tricky, but a final-day fixture against already-relegated Consadole gives Kashima as good a chance as it could wish for.

Urawa Reds (53,+15): S-Pulse (h), Gamba (a), Marinos (h)

Manager Gert Engels as good as conceded the title after losing to JEF United with six games to go, but Urawa is now firmly in contention after being catapulted into second place by two successive wins.

The fatigue that marked last season's meltdown should be spared by exits from the Asian Champions League and Emperor's Cup, and Naohiro Takahara, finally showing signs of breaking his slumber, could play an important role coming off the bench.

An away trip to Gamba could throw a wrench in the works, but the prospect of taking revenge for the ACL defeat and May's 3-2 loss at Saitama Stadium may be just the motivation Urawa needs to reclaim the title.

Nagoya Grampus (52, +10): Kyoto (a), Consadole (h), Trinita (a)

Dragan Stojkovic's side has been in absolute free-fall for the past couple of months, failing to win in its last six league games.

Inexperience has shown at times, but the return from injury of midfielder Magnum is a timely boost, and the Brazilian's good understanding with Frode Johnsen and Keiji Tamada bodes well.

A home game against Consadole should be a banker, but away trips to Kyoto and Trinita could prove more problematic.

Johnsen has repeatedly played down his side's title chances, but while all underdogs employ such kidology, it might be that Grampus lacks the genuine belief to go all the way. Oita Trinita (52,+8): Antlers (a), Reysol (a), Grampus (h)

Few would have thought Trinita would find itself in this position with just three games to go, but the Kyushu side's victory in the Nabisco Cup final at the start of the month proves it is no fluke.

Oita's steady defensive style may work to its advantage when things get frantic, but the lack of goals at the other end could be an insurmountable problem.

A difficult run-in stacks the cards further against Pericles Chamusca's men, and winning the title may be one step too far. But if anyone can instill the belief and motivation needed to do so, it is Chamusca.

Kawasaki Frontale (51,+13): Gamba (h), Vissel (h), Verdy (a)

Frontale has done well to haul itself into the title shakeup after a humdrum start to the season and the loss of manager Takashi Sekizuka, but the outlook would have been even rosier had it not been for a surprise loss to Omiya Ardija in the last round of fixtures.

Frontale has scored a league-high 55 goals, but the club will need Chong Tese and Juninho to keep firing to compensate for a defense that has conceded more than any other in the top half of the table.

Kawasaki's next match, at home to Gamba, could set the tone for the rest of the season.

FC Tokyo (51,+5): Vissel (a), Albirex (h), JEF (a)

Tokyo's last two matches, wins against Antlers and Gamba, suggest the capital side is firing on all cylinders heading into the final stretch, but a 5-1 defeat to S-Pulse earlier in October tells its own story.

Consistency is not a strong point of any of the teams gunning for the title, however, and in Shingo Akamine, Tokyo has a striker currently enjoying a rich vein of goalscoring form, even if he is likely to start on the bench.

A date with Vissel offers Tokyo a rare chance to face a team with nothing to play for, but Albirex is in trouble, and JEF will fight tooth and nail if survival is at stake on the final day.



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