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J.League Second Stage, Match Day Nine Preview

Thursday 18th August 2016
Japanese football fans, assemble! There is only nine matches left in the second stage and there's still lots to play for with teams trying to get into the Championship stage and whilst others are merely trying to stay in the top flight.

This week there's a real advertisement for the league as first placed Kawasaki Frontale play Urawa Red Diamonds in a top of the table clash.

Kashima Antlers vs. Shonan Bellmare

Last Sunday Kashima Antlers recorded their only win in their last four games, after losing three games on the bounce. Although it should be noted that they failed to keep a clean sheet in their win against Avispa Fukuoka who find themselves at the bottom of the league. Their recent form and unconvincing performances have led pundits to think that the club has taken a lackadaisical approach to the second stage, having almost nothing to play for since they've already qualified for the championship stage.

Relegation is looming over the Hiratsuka-based club, Shonan Bellmare. They currently sit seventeenth with just nineteen points from the whole campaign so far. Brazilian forward Dinei now with the club, could have a poetic return to the Kashima Soccer Stadium as he revisits the club he started his J.League career with.

Whilst Shonan Bellmare does seem destined for a season in J2, they are going down with a fight. Kashima Antlers seem complacent at best. This game has the potential for an upset as Shonan Bellmare will try to preserve their top-flight status. Should Kashima Antlers lose here, it'll allow Sanfrecce Hiroshima the chance to close the gap on them for that precious third place in the overall table.

Urawa Red Diamonds vs. Kawasaki Frontale

This game has all the potential to be the showpiece in contemporary Japanese football. It's equivalent to last year's Premier League meeting between Arsenal and Leicester City. It's late in the season, both teams have lost relatively few matches and they share the spoils at the top of the table. At present Urawa Red Diamonds top the second stage table by a mere three points whilst Kawasaki Frontale are ahead in the overall table, but only by a slender two point margin. This game will have major implications on both tables and who tops them.

Urawa Red Diamonds are unbeaten throughout the whole second stage so far, having won seven games and drawn just the one. This achievement has seen them top the standings for this stage as they welcome their closest opposition to the Saitama stadium. A large part of the team's success this stage has been down their attacking aptitude. Shinzo Koroki played a major part in the earlier games, before joining the Olympic team in Rio; he had netted a goal ten times before his international duty took place and fans will be hoping for him to return to the club as soon as possible. If he's not back in time for the weekend, the goal threat is still in good hands as Tadanari Lee and Yuki Muto have scored seventeen betwixt them. The latter having scored four goals in his last three matches is enjoying a very rich form in front of goal as he continues to contribute to the team's successes.

Kawasaki Frontale who last week announced their limited edition twentieth-year anniversary shirt, were hoping to mark the shirt with yet another win, as it seemed the team was unstoppable. That was until they played Sagan Tosu.  That marked the end to a sixteen league game unbeaten streak. That loss couldn't have come at a worse time as they prepare for this pivotal game in the league. That said, the team won't have just gone bad overnight. This is still the team which leads the goal scoring record, with an impressive fifty-one goals scored in just twenty-five games. They will potentially miss Miyoshi who is suspended after picking up a red card later on in last week's loss.

The record between the two teams makes for very interesting reading. Urawa Red Diamonds won the last game in Kawasaki this season and have won twelve out of the twenty-eight games the teams have contested. In fact, the away team classically struggle on this ground having not won there in three years. The game will likely be a preview of the Championship stage as both of these teams are very likely to qualify for it. Should one team emerge victorious here, they'll have a major psychological advantage over their opponents in the end game.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs. Ventforet Kofu

Creeping up the overall table is Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who may have started badly at this stage, have now established some consistency. Back to back league wins for the first time since early July will have enthralled fans as they continue to back their team to defend the J.League title. Although, their last game against Shonan Bellmare, wasn't exactly an easy ordeal. They found themselves one goal down with just twenty minutes on the clock and had to come from behind to seal the win. Takuya Marutani's strike on the hour mark ensured the win, but altogether a nervy affair for a game against a team in the relegation zone. Nigerian striker, Peter Utaka, continues to play a major part in Sanfrecce's season as he leads the goal scoring chart has he's scored an impressive seventeen goals thus far. Whilst other players undoubtedly have shown they can contribute in front of goal, none of them has even reached double figures of goals. It's fair comment that Utaka is primary attacking threat at the club. Every game for Sanfrecce Hiroshima will be considered a must-win, they are six points adrift of Kashima Antlers. They must win their games and hope Kashima fail to win theirs to reduce the deficit.

Hovering just above the relegation zone is Ventforet Kofu, who in fifteenth visit the Big Arch in search of three points to bolster their safety in the top flight. At present, they have a four-point vantage over relegation zone teams. Whilst the team was victorious last weekend against Albirex Niigata, they did so with a penalty kick. Meaning the team have failed to score from open play in over two-hundred-and-seventy minutes. An unerring stat which doesn't fill the players nor fans with confidence.

The home side will indubitably enter the game thinking they can emerge triumphantly here. If the league standings weren't a good enough indicator of this, their previous encounters should suffice. Sanfrecce Hiroshima has won the last four meetings and done so with an overall aggregate of 9-0. Ventfortet Kofu also has the least effective defence in the league having conceded a jarring forty-five goals so far, the most in the league. Not a terribly good prospect when they are poised to play the team who have the top goalscorer in their ranks. There's only one winner here.

Gamba Osaka vs. Vissel Kobe

Almost going undetected, Gamba Osaka has found themselves back in contention of the Championship stage. The club is hoping to qualify by topping the second stage table. They currently sit in third place and considering that the top two teams can't both win this weekend, there's a real opportunity for Gamba Osaka to climb up the table. Their rise in the second stage is largely down to a very sleek defensive operation, which has seen them only concede six goals so far. The team will also be riding high as they notched up three successive wins now and will be confident of another win here.

Vissel Kobe can be guilty of disappearing into mid-table obscurity, they are under no immediate relegation threat, however, are not in any shape or form challenging for the title. The club and fans might not be jumping for joy, but will appreciate an aspect of stability considering it wasn't long ago the club were relegated and spent a year in the second division. Should current form continue, Vissel Kobe will complete another campaign in the top flight and next season will be the progression year, to drive the club upwards. The club is home to one of the top scorers in the league, Leandro, who's found the net an impressive thirteen times. That's inclusive of his goal last weekend where the team ran out as 4-1 winners against F.C. Tokyo.

The teams know each other fairly well, having met thirty times prior. The teams were even relegated together in 2012 and as a result, the fixture was contested in the 2013 J2 league. There's been no shortage of goals either, Gamba Osaka famously won 5-1 away from home – whether as Vissel Kobe's last victory in Osaka was back in 2012, the relegation year, where they won 3-2. Given that one team can still push on and the other may stagnate not having much to contest, it may as well be a walkover for Gamba Osaka.

Elsewhere in the league, basement team, Avispa Fukuoka continues to fight off the icy hand of relegation as they travel to the Big Swan stadium to play Albirex Niigata. Júbilo Iwata will enjoy the company of Sagan Tosu as the away team look to make an impact on the second stage table standings and catapult themselves into Championship stage contention. Unbeaten Yokohama FM travel to the capital for a game against mid-table, yet fading, F.C. Tokyo. The travelling side was at one point in the mix to top the second stage table but have fallen from the pack a win here could revive their chances. There's no respite for Nagoya Grampus as they take on an impressive looking Kashiwa Reysol side. Eighth-placed Omiya Ardija welcome ninth-placed Vegalta Sendai in a upper-mid-table clash.
Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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