Yokohama F. Marinos might win the J-League division 1 title this year. Not a very brave prediction, I know, but I’m a bit scared to commit to the word ‘will’, and I’ll explain why. Despite the fact that we’re 2 points clear with just 5 games left to play, our recent form compared to that of our league rivals hasn’t given me reason to be overly confident. History also tempers my optimism and serves as a warning that good teams can struggle at this stage in the season.
First of all, I think it’s important to define what constitutes a ‘league rival’. With 56 points, we’re currently setting the pace at the top of the league. As it stands right now, there are 4 other sides within 6 points of us. Cerezo Osaka, who occupy 4th spot, and 5th placed Kashima Antlers have both been in good form recently, taking 12 points from the last 18 available. As a result, I’m drawing the line with 5th placed Kashima Antlers for the purposes of this article. That means I’m ruling out everyone from 6th Kawasaki Frontale (who are on 48 points) and below. As we all know, the J-League can be unpredicatble, but it would take a miraculous turn of events for a side 8 points off the pace to win the league with just 15 points left to play for. Agreed? Okay. Let’s get on with this…
My hesitance to commit to an F. Marinos triumph this season is born of a few different factors. The fortunes of Vegalta Sendai towards the end of last season, for example, is pretty much keeping me up at night. With 5 games remaining of the 2012 season Sendai imploded, drawing 3 and losing 2 of their last 5 games, a run that ultimately handed the title to their league rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Sendai had battled their way to title contention over the course of the season and were level on points with Sanfrecce with just 5 games to play. Finishing the season 7 points off the pace whilst conceding 12 goals in the last 5 games certainly wasn’t what Sendai fans had in mind at this stage 12 months ago.
The fact that I had booked my flights to head over the Japan for the last game of season immediately after the victory over Urawa Reds in August is in no way a reflection of my optimism. In fact, our recent form had caused me to start to prepare for the fact that I might be flying across the world to applaud my heroes and have a beer with a few friends after just another league match. While that’s as good a reason as any to make the trip, I can’t lie and say that I’m not hoping for a title party at Todoroki, home of Frontale, on the last game of the season. Recently though, our form hasn’t been convincing and results have been anything but that of league champions. Drawing three and winning two isn’t a bad record, but if we were to repeat that feat in our last 5 games I can’t say I’d be very confident we would win the title.
This recent dip in form has manifested itself in to me spending my evenings pouring over our remaining fixtures; especially after the draw against struggling Ventforet Kofu just a few weeks ago. The English language release of the fantastic footballgeist.com hasn’t helped much, providing an incredibly detailed look in to the past two decades of J-League football. Trends and statistics, whilst often completely useless, have on some occasions fueled the flames of my doubt, yet left me brimming with confidence on others.
I attempted to write this exact piece a week ago, but the Sanfrecce game felt like too big a match to overlook. Realistically, the effect a loss would have had on our already poor form may have caused me to write us off almost totally, but a win (and a good result in the Urawa game) would put us in a very strong position for the run-in. We held up our end of the deal and, whilst a draw would have been ideal,` Urawa defeated the rampaging Antlers who I feel, out with Hiroshima are our biggest rivals for the run-in. Hitting form just at the right time, Antlers would have ended up just 3 points off the top of the table and I wouldn’t have bet against them continuing their run for the next few weeks. To say Urawa don’t stand a good chance would be foolish, but they have proven slightly suspect defensively this season and I believe this may be their undoing eventually.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve simplified the way in which I explain the run-in to my barely interested colleagues after rolling in to work alive and awake at 8.30am on a Saturday morning (thanks to 5am kick offs…). To put it simply, I believe we have the favourable run-in because F. Marinos play the majority of our games against bottom-half opposition, whilst our opposition predominantly play top-half opponents. Of the 5 games left, 4 games will be played against bottom-half sides. It gives me confidence that we’re 2 points clear having already competed against all of the current top 5 twice this season.
In comparison, second placed Urawa Reds face 4 top-half sides in their remaining 5 games, with Sanfrecce and Cerezo Osaka facing the same challenge. Only 5th place Kashima have more than one game against bottom-half opposition, facing both Sagan Tosu and Shonan Bellmare. Quite why I’ve decided to place such emphasis on who’s in the top-half and bottom-half of the table I’m not sure, but I like it the way it looks!
Our first challenge comes this weekend when we face relegated Oita Trinita away from home. Picking up just 13 points in the past 30 games, an outsider would look at this game as a given for F. Marinos, however, Oita decided to pretty much ruin my week by winning their last game against free-falling Omiya Ardija and actually played some decent stuff in the process, by all accounts.
10 Points wins it for us, I reckon. Of course, in my head I’ve already worked out where those 10 points will come from, but I’ll keep that to myself to prevent ending the season with egg all over my face.
So to conclude, we might win the league this year. There’s still a chance we won’t, too. Consider yourself rambled at.
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