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The concluding three weeks of this year’s J-League season go a long way to help demonstrate just how peculiar a year it has been for Japan’s top flight.
A few surprises have arisen in the form of a potential new champion, and the relegation of one of the countries largest and oldest clubs.
Few would have even considered current league leaders, Kashiwa Reysol, worthy of a top half finish, never mind a stab at the crown. But the recently promoted club have built their success by becoming greater than the sum of their parts, with a dynamic midfield and rigid defence.
Jorge Wagner, who signed from Sao Paulo in the summer, has settled remarkably well and shares an intrinsic chemistry with Junya Tanaka fellow Brazilian, Leandro Domingues, with the midfield trio contributing 36 of the club’s 59 goals this season.
The club’s home form this season has been unrivalled, and that has been largely down to the close-knit spirit of the squad. With consistent defensive performances from players such as right back Hiroki Sakai and aforementioned free scoring midfielders; the club have taken that siege mentality and added a bit of class, leaving Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus trailing in their wake.
But Reysol aren’t the only side that could end the season on a dramatic note.
With three games left, Urawa Red - the AFC Champions League winners of 2007 – sit two points above the drop zone, staring into the abyss of relegation they’ve been digging themselves in to for the past four seasons.
The team’s poor form this term has been characteristic of the attitude that’s plagued the club, from top to bottom, for the past five years.
A club that could be defined as victims of their own success; Urawa enjoyed a hugely successful four year spell under Guido Buchwald and then fellow German Holger Osieck where they won two Emporer’s Cups, a League title and most importantly of all, the AFC Champions League in 2007.
The season after, Osieck’s side’s title charge collapsed towards the end of the season and, after finishing seventh, he was sacked just two games in to the following season without a single point on the board.
Since the German coach left, the club has tried desperately to emulate the successful formula that led them to four trophies during those ‘glory years’, but to no great success. Their league performances spoke for themselves, with 2009’s sixth place finish followed by a final position of 10th in 2010.
The club made rash decisions in appointing Gert Engels and Volker Finke, seemingly just because they were both German, before Zeljko Petrovic – assistant to Avram Grant at West Ham – was brought in half way through last season.
The Montenegrin was relieved of his duties in October when he was replaced by youth couth Takafumi Hori, taking Urawa Red’s managerial tally to five in just four years
This has, of course, had its effect on the playing squad, with big players such as Tanaka and Robson Ponte leaving in search of clubs who can offer stability and ambition. Meanwhile, the top signings brought in to replace them are underperforming - specifically ex-Murcia striker Ranko Despotovic and Sao Paulo loanee Mazola, who have only managed to muster up two goals between them in 26 league games.
Perhaps most worrying for Urawa is the standard of teams they will have to overcome to keep themselves in the league. On Saturday they welcome Vegalta Sendai - the division’s current form side, before travelling to an already relegated Fukuoka side desperate to regain some last gasp of dignity, the following weekend.
At the same time, relegation rivals Kashiwa have an away tie with seventh placed Shimizu, before what should be a relatively comfortable home tie against cosy mid-table outfit Cerezo Osaka.
The final day of the season will see disheartened Urawa host the jubilant Sun Kings from Reysol in a showdown that could well decide the fate of both clubs.
The once proud champions of Japan and Asia will welcome the new challengers to the crown. For one club, a desperate assault on what many believed an unachievable fantasy. For the other, their one remaining chance to wake from this ghoulish nightmare.
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