J-League Season 2017: Neck and neck at the top
The 2017 J1 season has already edged past its midway point and, as always in one of the world's most unpredictable leagues, it is still far from clear where the title will end up come December.
Cerezo Osaka currently lead the way on 38 points, and having only returned to the top flight this season they are aiming to emulate Kashiwa Reysol (2011) and local rivals Gamba Osaka (2014) by following promotion back to the top flight with the first division title.
Considering the fact they earned promotion by way of the play-offs - at the second time of asking, having lost to Avispa Fukuoka in the 2015 final - Cerezo would arguably top those feats if they go the distance and lift the shield, with both Reysol and Gamba having come back up as J2 champions.
Their fans shouldn't get too carried away just yet though, and over the last decade the team at the top after 18 games in the top flight has only gone all the way to finish the job half of the time. (This statistic is admittedly made slightly redundant on account of the unhelpful and much maligned return to a two-stage format in 2015 and 2016.)
In Yoon Jong-hwan Cerezo certainly have a talented manager capable of achieving results, although they will hope he can avoid falling out with those in charge of the club, as he did when being fired from his last job in Japan. Rather ominously, he was asked to pack his bags in August 2014 with Sagan Tosu top of J1 after 18 games.
Things look fine on that front this time around though, and it is instead the tightness at the summit that could cause Cerezo problems. There is no margin for error in the top third of the table, and the ongoing lack of a truly must-beat side in Japan means first to sixth are separated by just six points.
Reigning champions Kashima Antlers - who did benefit from the two stage system last year by nipping in to snatch the first stage title and book their Championship place with a brief run of form midway through the campaign - sit just one point behind Cerezo, while Kawasaki Frontale are a further two back after stitching together a five-game unbeaten run just before the break.
Next come Kashiwa on 34 points, who could be top themselves if they hadn't suffered bruising back-to-back defeats against Kashima (3-2) and Cerezo (2-1) in their last two games - both after having taken the lead themselves.
Yokohama F.Marinos are only one point worse off thanks to an eight-game unbeaten run during which things have threatened to finally come together for former France U-21 coach Erick Mombaerts and the City Football Group, while 2014 treble winners Gamba make up the chasing pack on 32 points.
Of course, there are some notable absentees from that list, and it wouldn't be the J.League if there weren't a couple of fancied clubs underachieving.
First up for discussion has to be Urawa Reds, who ended last season with the most points only to stumble at the final hurdle by losing to Kashima on away goals in the Championship final. Mihailo Petrovic's side looked like they were all set to make up for that disappointment with a strong start to the 2017 campaign, and were top on goal difference after 11 rounds of matches.
They have embarked on a catastrophic run of form since then though, losing five of their last seven league games, including a 4-1 mauling away to Kawasaki Frontale - who Reds will also face in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League - after which Petrovic was forced to spend over an hour in discussion with far from happy supporters before the team bus was able to leave Todoroki Stadium.
Reports suggested he had given fans his word he would step down if the team didn't string together a run of wins starting with their next game against rock-bottom Albirex Niigata, and it looked for a while like any pledge would need to be honoured as Reds found themselves a goal down after Kei Koizumi's 35th minute strike and still trailing with 16 minutes to play in Saitama Stadium on 9 July.
Goals in the 74th and 79th minutes from captain Yuki Abe and Rafael Silva averted a potentially combustible situation though, and Petrovic insisted afterwards that he has no intention of throwing in the towel and is in it for the long haul, hoping to become, "Reds' Arsene Wenger, staying in charge for at least 10 years" (he is currently midway through his sixth year at the club).
One man who did opt to resign was Petrovic's successor at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Hajime Moriyasu, who called it a day after his side lost 4-3 against Urawa on 1 July.
Sanfrecce won the league three times in four seasons between 2012-2015 and also made it to a Club World Cup semi-final against River Plate just over a year-and-a-half ago, but after slumping to a 6th place finish last season things have gone even worse so far this, and they are marooned in the relegation zone on just 11 points, five from safety.
Swede Jan Jonsson has been drafted in to try and get the Purple Archers firing again, and a fellow European has also arrived in order to provide a boost for another underachieving side, with Germany legend Lukas Podolski signing for Vissel Kobe.
The Rakuten-backed club has long struggled to realize its full potential, and despite being tipped for big things ahead of this season is floating around in its usual mid-table malaise, 11 points above the relegation zone and 12 off the top of the table.
Podolski's signing has received much fanfare and the usual breathless coverage from the local media, but whether he can carry Vissel up the table on his own remains to be seen - although in fairness he will have a little help from 194cm striker Mike Havenaar, who has also signed for the club and whose height it is a contractual obligation to mention at every reference.
All in all there is plenty to keep fans interested over the second half of the season, then, but quite how things are going to end up is, as ever, anyone's guess.
Copyright: Sean Carroll & Soccerphile.com
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