Sato stars as Sanfrecce take control

J-League News November 2012

Mike Tuckerman

"I don't want to be left with regrets," was how Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato summed up a vital 2-1 home defeat to Kashiwa Reysol. The loss came back in Round 29 and it allowed Vegalta Sendai to draw level with Hiroshima at the top of the table. Perhaps that's why Sato has been desperate to influence proceedings ever since. His team dodged a bullet with a lucky 1-1 draw away at Gamba Osaka in Round 30, in a match in which Hiroshima were outplayed throughout. But against bottom club Consadole Sapporo in Round 31, Sato was back to inspired best.

He was fouled for Hiroshima's opener, allowing Koji Morisaki to step up and open the scoring from the penalty spot. And his rasping drive for Hiroshima's second in a convincing 3-0 win was his 21st goal of a profitable campaign and allowed Hiroshima to re-open a two-point gap on their closest rivals Sendai. Only six times in the past has a Japanese player topped the J. League goal scoring charts, but Sato is well on the way to making it seven. He's been arguably the most influential player in the competition this season.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Sato's renaissance isn't a major surprise. Not since 2003 when he scored 9 goals in 30 top-flight games has he failed to rack up double figures in the goal scoring column, and the prolific marksman rattled home 11 goals in 2011 as Hiroshima finished seventh. What has surprised this time around is Hiroshima's transformation from a middling mid-table team into runaway title contenders. It's a transformation which has been led by Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu around a squad composed almost exclusively of Japanese talent.

Continuity has no doubt played a role. Several of the squad, including Sato, are veterans of the 2007 team which suffered a shock relegation to J2. The southern side bounced back as second-tier champions just a season later and they've been on the rise ever since. Nevertheless, Moriyasu's men are locked in a dogged battle with northern contenders Sendai for the J. League crown. However coach Makoto Teguramori's Sendai team have stumbled in the run home and consecutive 1-1 draws against mid-table outfits Jubilo Iwata and Cerezo Osaka have left Hiroshima in the box seat. With three games remaining it's Sanfrecce who hold a crucial advantage and they can definitively end the title challenge of third-place Urawa Reds with a win in their next match.

It's a similarly tight tale at the bottom of the division. Hokkaido battlers Consadole Sapporo were relegated long ago but there are five teams locked in a dogged battle to avoid the other two relegation spots. 2008 Asian champions Gamba Osaka are one of those teams, with the Kansai giants languishing in 16th place with only three games remaining. They're level on points alongside second-from-bottom Albirex Niigata, while Vissel Kobe, Omiya Ardija and Kashima Antlers are the other sides hoping to avoid the drop. Kashima, who won three league titles in a row from 2007 to 2009, look the best chance of hauling themselves clear but for Kobe and Saitama strugglers Omiya, there's still plenty of work to do.

J2 playoff places decided

It took until a dramatic final day of the regular season for the J2 promotion playoff places to be decided and Kanagawa side Shonan Bellmare were the big winners. They hammered neighbours Machida Zelvia 3-0 on the road to secure second place and avoid the convoluted new playoff system. Shonan, who spent a solitary season in the top flight in 2010, will join Ventforet Kofu in the top flight in 2013 after the Yamanashi side won the division at a canter.

Kofu still had a role to play in deciding the playoff participants as they held Kyoto Sanga to a scoreless draw at Nishikyogoku Stadium. That result means Kyoto joins Yokohama FC, JEF United and Oita Trinita in the playoffs, which will be played concurrently alongside several Emperor's Cup fixtures on November 18 and 23 respectively.

Kashima crowned League Cup champions

Youngster Gaku Shibasaki scored twice to fire Kashima Antlers to a 2-1 win over Shimizu S-Pulse in the League Cup final on November 3. The 20-year-old was fouled with 17 minutes remaining and stepped up to coolly convert the resultant spot kick. However Shimizu replied in kind as their young striker Genki Omae converted from the penalty spot soon after, to send the match into extra-time.

Shibasaki proved the difference in front of 45,228 fans at a packed National Stadium in Tokyo, as he lashed home the winner just three minutes into extra-time. The win was Kashima's 16th major title but the first for coach Jorginho, who won the League Cup as a player with the Ibaraki giants in 1997. The defeat was Shimizu's second in a row in a League Cup decider and fourth in succession in a major final. The Shizuoka outfit lost the 2008 League Cup final in between finishing runner-up in the Emperor's Cup in 2005 and 2010.

Copyright: Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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