This is an exclusive offered to In Bed With Maradona by Ben Mabley and the collective of writers at The Blizzard. Ben’s ‘Great finishes in Japan’ appears in The Blizzard Issue Three and features a selection of the most gripping climaxes to the J.League season. Saturday saw yet another close finish as newly-promoted Kashiwa Reysol headed into the last day of the season with title ambitions – see Ben’s take on it all below. To read more download Issue Three of The Blizzard [Link to: http://www.theblizzard.co.uk/] which is out now on a pay-what-you-like basis.
Kashiwa Reysol, 2011
As Oita Trinita and FC Tokyo will quickly testify, the pristine evenness that the J. League playing field has retained over almost two decades ensures that even recent title challengers face a genuine risk of relegation whenever a blip is neglectfully allowed to become a rut. Happily, for those who pass them on their way up from J2, the reverse holds just as true. Sanfrecce Hiroshima followed their second division success in 2008 with a fourth-place finish in J1 twelve months later – enough for a back-door route to the AFC Champions League when already-qualified Gamba Osaka won the Emperor’s Cup – while Cerezo Osaka went one better to come in third and seal an Asian ticket by right in 2010. No promoted side, though, had quite sustained a genuine bid for the championship until Kashiwa Reysol.
Back for his third spell in Japan following qualified success with Verdy Kawasaki in the 1990s (see No. 3 of the Eight Bells in The Blizzard Issue Three) but frustration at Nagoya Grampus in the 2000s, master tactician Nelsinho Baptista remained faithful to the largely unheralded mixture of youth and experience that had sealed the J2 title by a clear ten points as he sought to shake off Kashiwa’s ‘yo-yo club’ label. The general consensus among pundits was that they would comfortably avoid relegation and, injuries to a small squad permitting, might even win a few friends en route to a top ten finish. Few anticipated that they would thump Shimizu S-Pulse 3-0 on the opening weekend and pull out a four-point lead at the top with seven wins and a draw from their first nine matches.
A seven-week hiatus in the wake of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami resulted in a congested period of catch-up throughout the summer and, for Reysol, effectively three months of concentrated home and away fixtures against other clubs in the top half of the table. A 3-0 midweek drubbing at home to Júbilo Iwata was followed seven days later by a pulsating 4-2 loss to Takashi Usami-inspired Gamba, before attacking star Leandro Domingues picked up two yellows in the opening 28 minutes of a kamikaze 5-0 defeat away to Cerezo. If that wasn’t bad enough, August brought 6-1 and 2-0 reverses in the return ties with Iwata and Gamba. Each fresh setback invited further, knowing crows of bubbles bursting (but wasn’t it nice while it lasted). Like Gamba, reigning champions Nagoya were resurgent after continental elimination in May and put together a run of 16 league games unbeaten to go top. Kashiwa quietly fell to fourth.
But a closer look revealed that the spectacular blowouts had masked an astonishing combination of tenacious resolve, calm organisation, and breakthrough talent whose effect was to turn one point into three with near-100% success whenever they weren’t getting roundly beaten. Even when slipping outside the Champions League places, Kashiwa were never more than three points off the summit, and exciting comeback victories on successive weekends against Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus served up an instant reminder of their credentials. Crucially, the tough summer left behind an easier run-in just as Grampus were starting to lack their trademark consistency under Dragan Stojković and Gamba were forced to adopt a more pragmatic approach following the departure of Usami to Bayern Munich. Goals in the 62nd and 85th minutes away to Shimizu S-Pulse on the antepenultimate weekend turned around a 1-0 half-time deficit to leave Reysol three points clear with two to play.
It wouldn’t be the J. League if they hadn’t then gone and drawn their last home match with Cerezo – only their third single point of the entire season – allowing both of their title rivals to move within touching distance. The heavy mid-season defeats had left Kashiwa with the weakest goal difference of the three contenders and thus no margin for error whatsoever. On the final Saturday, Nagoya beat Albirex Niigata 1-0 to render Gamba’s 3-1 win in Shimizu irrelevant and waited hopefully to see if the leaders had caved to the pressure.
No chance. As had come to characterise the latter part of their glorious campaign, Nelsinho’s men rose to the occasion when it mattered most to brush Urawa Reds aside 3-1 thanks to goals from Jorge Wagner, Wataru Hashimoto, and Akimi Barada. At the home of another fallen giant – Urawa finished one place above the relegation zone just four years after winning the Champions League – Kashiwa had sealed an unprecedented J2-J1 double.
Edited by Jonathan Wilson, Issue Three of The Blizzard is out now and features articles by a host of top writers including Philippe Auclair, Gabrielle Marcotti, Simon Kuper, and Michael Cox. The Blizzard is a 190-page quarterly publication that allows writers the opportunity to write about the football stories that matter to them, with no limits and no editorial bias. All issues are available to download for PC/Mac, Kindle and iPad on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats.