Spanish Postcards: J.League Review
Waiting for the new season? Why? In Japan, we started up a few days after the World Cup. We’re barely over the halfway point, with 19 of 34 matchdays played. It’s been a crazy old month with plenty of matches to report in a fairly short period. The two new Spanish lads made an impact just by arriving. Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres raised the sport's profile in Japan, reminding casual fans there's more than sumo in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Andres Iniesta writes an interesting story. He debuted in the 3-0 home loss to Shonan, coming off the bench. By the time stepped on the pitch, the game's story was told
He started the next game against Kashiwa Reysol. The Barca legend wasn't the be-all, end-all but played a part in Vissel's triumph. Hooray.
Then he went back to Spain. The western media hasn’t picked up on it, but the Japanese broadsheets say he's taking a short break. His purpose is unclear. Some reports state he wants to help his family move continents. Others claim the lazy Spaniard wants a little siesta. At 34, to play in La Liga, a World Cup, then straight to the other side of the world, who can blame him?
Reports are generally positive; suggesting he will back soon. FC Tokyo are allegedly annoyed the superstar won’t be back in time to grace the Ajinomoto. Instead, they're going to hire an impersonator. Seriously.
Without their marquee name, Kobe are still doing well, chasing the ACL spots from fifth.
Fernando Torres is much more direct with his postcard. He’s based in Saga, playing for Sagan Tosu. Think Peterborough with better wifi. There’s very little to do, unlike most of Japan. You wouldn’t wake up and say, “Let’s go to Saga”.
Nando's mail resembles prose from his early Chelsea days. Bleak, scruffy handwriting without a stamp on it. He’s participated in three games without scoring. The tedium he put Chelsea fans through was semi-acceptable. It's hard to switch from one big club to another. Peterborough, sorry I mean Saga, are not a big club and, while I’ll back the J.League to the hills, it’s not quite La Liga.
Waiting for Nando to open his account is like waiting with baited breath for the season's first humpback whale to appear. There's a tangible fear no more remain. On the other hand, he didn't play in the World Cup, thus doesn’t need a siesta. He’s staying around to work with the team, which hasn't won a game since he joined.
Consequently, the former Atletico man is in a relegation scrap in his first J.League campaign. The team is second from bottom, five points off safety. There’s a fair bit of football yet; so let’s not get the “Torres J2” banners out just yet, but he must find his form to pull the club out of the relegation zone.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima sits undeterred at the top. Their lead shrank to seven points, but their star, Patric, continues to score when he likes. He does it enough other teams can't come any closer. The uncapped Brazilian is having the season of his life at 30, already matching his scoring record in many fewer games. Fourteen in the league tops the list comfortably. He scored a brace against his former team, Gamba Osaka, displaying the class not to celebrate.
Despite his presence, this Sanfrecce side are vulnerable at points. They couldn’t score against bottom-feeders Nagoya Grampus. Next, they lost 4-1 at home to Urawa Red Diamonds. Defensive woes aside, they could have won had they taken their plentiful chances. When the attack is off-key, teams can beat them. Then again, it seldom happens. They were back on song against Yokohama F. Marinos last week, winning 4-1.
Gateway to Asia
Second and third-placed qualify for Asia from the JLeague, as well as the champions. FC Tokyo in second could be the only team who can challenge Sanfrecce for the title.
Their return from the World Cup break featured a bit of everything. A big 5-2 romp, a resilient defensive win, a comeback and a mystifying loss. The latter showed why the gashouse gang isn’t a serious candidate for the title. Losing to relegation-threatened Nagasaki justifies the notion the capital club will fall further away from the title, Diego Oliviera's ten goals notwithstanding. On loan from Kashiwa, FCT may keep him next campaign, given his success.
Kawasaki Frontale were enjoying a renaissance before succumbing to Urawa Reds. Their star, Kobayashi, is a shadow of the player we enjoyed seeing score at leisure last year. His malaise has affected the entire squad. They've battened down the hatches, shipping fewer goals, but the recovery comes too late with Sanfrecce 11 points ahead.
Watch your step
We’ve already touched on Fernando Torres and Sagan Tosu. Other teams are in the doldrums, too. Arsene Wenger left Nagoya Grampus two decades ago, but they've fallen to greater depths by far than Arsenal. That's what happens when Jo is your striker. The Brazilian isn't faring much better than Fernando Torres. Grampus are dead last with 13 points from 18 games. There could be signs of life. Last week, they secured a 2-1 win against Velgalta Sendai, just their third this season.
Gamba Osaka are still in trouble in 17th place. Per the new J.League rules, they will contest a promotion/relegation playoff. With no wins in their last five, it’s hard to see a way out for the iconic Kansai club. They have 17 points thus far.
Yokohama F. Marinos remain the league's top scorers but are now sucked into the relegation battle, sitting on 20 points. They edge Nagasaki and Kashiwa on goal difference.
Checking the table on Monday mornings is nerve-wracking for all these sides' supporters. Lucky that you only receive my postcard monthly. Hopefully, when September arrives, Nando and Iniesta will be settled and firing their teams up the table. Sayonara til then.