J1 League mid-point review
With the J.League's top tier currently on hold for the World Cup. there's no better time to step back and analyze the fine football radiating from the land of the rising sun.
With 15 out of 34 matchdays already taken place, the campaign is close to its midway point. It's been a long ride; quite literally considering the teams span the height and width of Japan, including several major islands.
It's lonely at the top. Hiroshima's Prefecture doesn't have all that many famous mountains to boast about, yet its football team have reached Japanese football's peak. They look down on their closest competitor with a nine-point lead. Given Sanfrecce's previous successes, their pedigree and desire to win shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet, their form is in stark contrast to last season, when the side almost dropped from the top division.
Patric has proven a sensational signing for the league leaders. The Brazilian forward has hit a real purple patch (pun intended). Ten goals make him the division's top scorer. Having spent last campaign on loan, he's suitably adjusted since moving permanently
Race for Asia
With the second and third-placed teams qualifying for the Asian Champions League, these spots hold a certain amount of grandeur. At present, FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale sit in the desired places. They are still up for grabs, though.
Striking the capital to the continent is Diego Oliveira. The Brazilian, on loan at Tokyo, has surpassed parent club Kashiwa Reysol with his nine league goals so far this season.
The two likely challengers for the Asian competition slots are Cerezo Osaka and Consadole Sapporo; a club with Englishman Jay Bothroyd on the books. Both sides have made good progress in the J.League, scrapping away in every game. Osaka have only two defeats. Sapporo, having played an extra game, sit on three losses.
A few teams are neither in real title contention nor with much chance of qualifying for Asia. They all have something to celebrate in their own right, though.
V-Varen Nagasaki is surviving in the top flight. If their form continues, they will complete a good debut campaign in J1.
Shanon Bellmare has also adapted effortlessly to life in the first division after earning promotion. They were involved in arguably the game of this season, which ended 4-4 against Yokohama F. Marinos.
The J1 League has two relegation spots. The team finishing third from bottom contests a playoff against a second-tier side to determine which retains or gains top-flight status.
Currently rooted in the last position is Nagoya Grampus. Their two wins and three draws are eclipsed by ten defeats. Last year's top scorer in J2, Robin Simovic, left the club. His goals have yet to be replaced. The incoming Jo tried to find a rhythm, but the 31-year-old journeyman has managed only six goals this season.
Sagan Tosu is the other side presently set to go down. They, too, have problems finding the net, failing to score in their last two encounters. That said, the Saga Prefecture team remains unbeaten in three matches. Their fortunes may be changing.
Gamba Osaka occupies the relegation play-off place. It is exactly what they deserve having produced a torrid campaign up to now. Their performance hinges on older talent. At 38, Yasuhito Endo is still one of the team's most important players. While he is a Japanese football legend, the club's future looks uncertain with no youngsters coming through.
As well as the sides worrying over dropping a division, there are several others which have nothing to shout about.
Yokohama F. Marinos are way off expectations. Having finished fifth last time around, they currently sit 13th. Frustratingly for them, they are the league's highest scorers. That's overshadowed by troubles at the other end, however.
Urawa Red Diamonds fall into a similar category. Despite claiming the Asian Champions League last year, they have failed to follow it up, winning only four games all season. Poor form puts them 14th, possibly in a relegation scrap.
Japan's top tier resumes action on 18 July, three days after the World Cup final, with a full mid-week fixture list. Make sure to keep an eye out for our new monthly J.League review.