After one game of the 2011 Japanese season, nobody cared about the J-League as the nation was reeling from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. With one game to go the situation is rather different with soccer fans excited about what promises to be a Saturday afternoon to remember as only two points separate the top three. Anything can happen -- and in J-League title races it usually does -- especially as Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka are all playing away from home. It really is up for grabs.
The J-league trophy will be at the home of Urawa Reds ready to be presented to the only team that controls its own destiny. Any other season and all would have expected that to be the host but Urawa, Japan's best-supported club, has battled relegation all season and is still not mathematically safe (though realistically as good as) from the drop. Instead it is Kashiwa in the driving seat and odds-on for a first-ever title. The team was in J2 last season but has kept its momentum going in the top tier against all expectations -- after all in the past decade the team has been relegated twice and never finished above eighth in the top tier.
In the confusion that reigned early in the season, the Sun Kings were just one of a bunch of unfamiliar teams at the top. Quickly Sanfrecce Hiroshima dropped by the wayside while Vegalta Sendai hung on manfully for a few months but Kashiwa, under the guidance of wily Brazilian coach Nelsinho, is still there and then some. Its fighting spirit has been impressive, seven times the Yellows have come from behind to win and nobody relishes a trip to the small but intimidating Hitachi Kashiwa Soccer Stadium, just 30 minutes train ride northeast of Tokyo. The passionate fans that pack the arena should have seen their heroes put one hand on the trophy last weekend but after winning eight of the previous nine matches; Kashiwa stumbled to a 1-1 tie at home to Cerezo Osaka. Now there are nerves and now it has to win in front of 50,000 hostile Urawa fans to be sure -- though there are sure to be a large number of yellow-shirted away fans at Saitama Stadium.
Nagging in the back of the mind of all Kashiwa fans is the knowledge that title races in Japan usually have as many twists and turns as the Tokyo subway map. The final day of the 2005 season has gone down in folklore. Five teams started that early December day separated by just a single point. Leader Cerezo Osaka was on top all afternoon until a last-minute equalizer from FC Tokyo dropped the potential champs down to fifth. Other races have not been bad either. In 2007, Urawa was ten clear with five games to go but was passed on the final day, losing to the hapless and already relegated Yokohama FC while Kashima Antlers picked up a fifth successive victory. Three teams were in contention the following year while in 2009 Kashima and Kawasaki fought it out until the bitter end.
Nagoya took it comfortably in 2010 but despite the fact that the defending champion has what looks to be the easiest game -- at midtable Albirex Niigata -- it needs Kashiwa to slip up. If the leader is defeated, a tie will be enough for the second-placed team thanks to goal difference. There is talk of coach Dragan Stojkovic as a potential successor to friend, mentor and former boss, Arsene Wenger. Arsenal fans would take some convincing that lightning can strike twice when it comes to taking a coach straight from Nagoya but the Serbian's case would be helped by two titles in two years and success in the 2012 Asian Champions League would help more. Nagoya fans not making the long trip north, and even the ones that are, will have more than an eye on events in Urawa.
Gamba Osaka fans have two other games to keep tabs on. The events of 2005 mean that the team will not give up as it was the beneficiary of Cerezo's last-minute collapse to win the title. The odds this time though are longer, not least as it has a tough trip to Shimizu S-Pulse. Shimizu, coached by Iranian-American Afshin Ghotbi, took the lead against Kashiwa two weeks ago only to lose 2-1 late in the game and brushed aside Nagoya in October in an impressive performance, which also included Freddie Ljungberg's first full game in Japan.
Gamba coach Akiro Nishino has a decade of experience at or near the top of the table to call upon. The game at the picturesque Nihondaira Stadium, which offers a view of Mount Fuji on a clear day, is to be his last with the club. The quietly-spoken Nishino, a former coach of Kashiwa ( Kashiwa boss Nelsinho was also in charge of Nagoya from 2003 to 2005), has delivered the 2005 J-league and the 2008 Asian titles to go with eight top three well as a third-place finish in eight of his 10 seasons. A last day success for Nishino, in both senses of the word, would be quite a story.
As dramatic as that would surely be, the best story of the season isn't to be found at Gamba or Kashiwa but Vegalta Sendai. A team tipped for a relegation battle. Fans of the J-League team closest to the earthquake's epicenter and the devastation of the tsunami helped ensure that the club's damaged stadium was sufficiently repaired for the resumption of the league at the end of April. It was but barely and supporters had to be told not to bounce too much, in the manner of East Asian fans, just in case. It must have been hard as the team embarked on a series of wins to top the table and stayed there long enough to not only put a smile on the faces of fans everywhere but to suggest, for a while at least, that it could actually pull off the impossible.
It couldn't last but Sendai was the last team in the top two tiers to lose its unbeaten record. Even now, it is guaranteed to finish fifth and could even end in fourth, not bad for a team that has never finished higher than 13th and saw its star Brazilian striker Marquinhos leave for home due to the events and aftermath of March 11.
Nobody blamed him for doing so but he is going to miss out on what promises to be a final weekend to remember.