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Can Sanfrecce Hiroshima still make a success of this season?

Wednesday 10th August 2016
The current J.League champions, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, are currently outside the Championship qualifying berth but have managed close the gap between themselves and the Kashima Antlers to just six points in the overall table. They're also still in the cup competition. But can they still emerge triumphant from this campaign with their heads held high?

Sanfrecce Hiroshima's first stage performances left them in an under-performing fourth place, in the primary table standings, ten points off the winners Kashima Antlers and three points away from the elusive third place to qualify for the championship stage. It's been the second stage which their season started to decline with inconsistency, having only won three of seven games. The 1-0 loss to Gamba Osaka two weeks ago will have really hurt considering that they are also falling behind expectations. It's a fair comment that most of Sanfrecce's problems are at the back and not seeing games out, a point validated by the amount of goals conceded when in winning positions. They gave away results against both Kashiwa Reysol and Yokohama, both games they held the lead in.
Despite the variability and the problems at the back, the team have shown they have all the qualities to challenge for the championship stage yet have failed to qualify for it so far. The greatest elements of the team this season is embodied in the Nigerian striker, Peter Utaka, who is the top goal scorer in the league. The striker is a season-long loan from J2 league club, Shimizu S-Pulse who were relegated from the top-tier of Japanese football last season. This loan has proved fruitful as with his accomplishments and his overwhelming popularity with the fans considering he's only been with them since January. Kosei Shibasaki has also been at the heart of the club's victories this term, his good form seen him score eight goals this season and make the same number of assists. He's proved he's both a creator and a finisher in front of goal.

Last time out, the team managed to win against 2-0 against Nagoya Grampus which they were largely expected to do so, considering the opposition were and still are in the relegation zone. The win was well needed to spark energy and belief back into their second stage campaign. There's no better time for the team to begin a run of form either, as their next three league games are against lower ranked teams. Shonan Bellmare in seventeenth place, Ventforet Kofu in fifteenth place and Vegalta Sendai in ninth should present an easier set of nine points for Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

To qualify for the Championship stage, the team would need to either win the second stage by finishing first in the second stage table or finish in the top three of the overall table (the combination of both the first and second stage tables). The most realistic aim would be the latter, considering they are in fourth place in the overall table and just six points behind third placed, Kashima Antlers. At present the Kashima Antlers are in a world of despair, having suffered three losses in a row. Given Sanfrecce Hiroshima's upcoming games against lower ranked teams and their closest opposition's exceptional poor form at present, there's no reason why can't they capitalise and get into a qualification championship berth.
In addition to the league which is achievable with effort and results, the team are still in the J.League cup competition. The competition is the most prestigious cup within Japanese football and the season would still be considered a success, should they lift the trophy. There is, however, a major obstacle in their way, as they must negotiate a quarter-final tie with their long-time foes, Gamba Osaka. Their matches are always tight affairs, and this two-legged tie for a semi-final place in the cup will be no different. The first tie will be played at the Hiroshima Big Arch on the 31st of August. The cup competition and the team which is fielded will be dependent on just how the team perform in their aforementioned upcoming league games. Should the league games not go to plan, this may change Hajime Moriyasu's season strategy and see the cup as a scapegoat for bringing success to the club.

Altogether, Sanfrecce Hiroshima has all the tools to make this season a success and there's no better chance than their next three league games. Three victories in a row would certainly put them back in the mix for the championship stage. The cup competition should be seen as another opportunity and not just a backup plan. No doubt it'll be hard to do, but as the current champions, their fans have the expectations of champions to win silverware.
Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 

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