Tuesday, July 12, 2011

J2 throws up a few surprises

By Ben Maxwell

JEF United Chiba top the table
While unfancied Kashiwa and Sendai have been getting all the plaudits for their stellar starts to the J1 season, there have also been plenty of surprises in J2, where several of the newer, lower profile clubs have proven through the first 15 games of the season they will be serious contenders for promotion to the top flight.

This is my first season paying much attention to the second division (full disclosure, I’m an FC Tokyo fan, we were relegated for the first time at the end of 2010) but what I’ve been struck by through the first 15 matchdays is the unpredictability of the league. As a fan of English football too, the best comparison I can make is with the Championship, which many fans find more entertaining results-wise and in terms of the even-ness of the league than the Premier League.

So, firstly, a little background on the second tier of the J.League for the uninitiated: J2 consists of 20 clubs, with a fairly rapid expansion having taken place in the past six years. The league has grown from 12 to 20 teams since the end of 2005, with Kitakyushu (2010) and Tottori (2011) the most recent additions.

The 20 current clubs can be sorted into four rough groups:

Fallen Giants: Chiba, FC Tokyo, Tokyo Verdy, and Oita were all well-established top-flight sides for most of the 2000s. Verdy and Chiba, in fact, were original J.Leaguers, and Verdy were undoubtedly the league’s first super club before falling on hard times in 2005, when they suffered their first ever relegation.

Yo-Yos: This group features Kyoto, Sapporo, Yokohama FC, and Shonan, who have all spent time in both tiers, with their stays in J1 generally short. This designation is perhaps a little harsh on Kyoto, who have spent 11 of their 16 J.League seasons in the top division.

The J2 Lifers: These are the teams who joined J2 the year it was formed (1999) or thereabouts, and have never been promoted. Tosu and Mito have this group all to themselves, having spent their entire J.League lives (since ’99 & 2000, respectively) in the second tier.

The Newbies: Half the league qualify here, an indication of the rapid expansion I spoke of earlier. Kitakyushu and Tottori are givens, obviously, but the other new teams are Tochigi SC, Toyama and Okayama (entered in 2009), Kumamoto and FC Gifu (2008), and also Ehime FC (2006). Kusatsu and Tokushima (2005) can be placed here too. All of these teams have never been promoted.

Tokushima Vortis have surprised many this year
Pleasingly, for the development and competitiveness of the league, five of “The Newbies” occupy positions in the top half of the table after Matchday 15. Tokushima and Tochigi, in fact, sit in the promotion places, second and third respectively, and have made great strides in 2011 after finishing eighth and tenth in 2010.

Tokushima have been on a tear, winning their last four, and are one of only two teams to defeat leaders Chiba. They’ve used a balanced attack paced by wingers Yusuke Shimada and Yoichiro Kakitani, and featuring dual targets Tomohiro Tsuda (16 goals in 2010) and Douglas. The two big blots on their copybook are a 4-0 home battering at the hands of Tochigi and a 1-0 loss at FC Tokyo, but the Shikoku club are sure to be there or thereabouts come December. The way they dismantled mid-table Kusatsu 3-0 on Saturday was a warning for the rest of the league, with Tsuda netting for the second straight game.

Tochigi have slipped from the summit after draws in their last two, (1-1s at home to Sapporo then away at Kyoto last weekend) but have gone eight games unbeaten and look set for a long stint in the promotion hunt. They also feature a 16-goal hitman from ’10, and Ricardo Lobo has carried on where he left off last season, bagging six so far including both Tochigi goals in a highly entertaining (and encouraging) 2-2 draw away at Chiba in Matchday 12.

Chiba are setting the pace, have been in the top two all year, and look determined to make amends for the disappointment of 2010, when they entered their first season ever in J2 as massive favourites for promotion but stuttered in the second half of the campaign and finished fourth.

They addressed things in the biggest (tallest!) way possible by signing 204cm Norwegian striker Tor Hogne Aaroy, the tallest outfield player in world football, to spearhead their attack with support from fleet-footed forwards Masaki Fukai and Koki Yonekura. Aaroy started out with a bang, netting in the season opening win over Kitakyushu and then bagging a brace as Chiba laid down a marker by thumping fellow “Fallen Giant” FC Tokyo 3-0 in Matchday 2 (the first game back after the six week suspension of play after the earthquake and tsunami).

In the games that followed, as teams naturally focused on how to stop Aaroy, the wee man Fukai has taken full advantage of his extra freedom and used his pace and predatory skills to full effect, his nine goals has him top of the scoring charts and he’s netted in three straight games on two occasions already. They were held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Kumamoto on Saturday, but are six games unbeaten.

FC Tokyo were overwhelming favourites for promotion this season after they kept largely the same squad together following their stunning relegation at the end of 2010 (see my piece in J Soccer Magazine for more on that). That meant Japan internationals Yasuyuki Konno, Naohiro Ishikawa, Shuichi Gonda and others stuck around to try and make amends and get the capital club back into the top flight at the first attempt.

FC Tokyo face a battle
to earn promotion back to J1
The early loss to Chiba seemed to shake Tokyo’s confidence, and after two scoreless draws followed, with opponents adopting the same defensive tactics that The Gasmen found so difficult to break down last season, their home support grew restless as expectations were clearly not being met.

Results began to improve with a 4-1 away win over Kyoto in Matchday 8, which also marked the emergence of young midfielder Sotan Tanabe, who netted twice, and then from Matchday 10 Tokyo won five on the spin to climb to third, with that winning run finally halted in a 0-0 draw at Oita this past weekend.

The three other “Newbies” in the top half are Kumamoto (5th), Kitakyushu (7th) and Ehime (10th), and while Kumamoto have improved after finishing seventh last year, the big story amongst those three is Kitakyushu, who have won their last four and defied expectations after a horrid first season in 2010, in which they won only one of their 36 games, scoring just 20 goals. The reason for their improved results is clearly their improved defence: they’ve kept clean sheets in eight of 15 games this year, including in their 1-0 away win over Tottori on Sunday, after managing just five all of last season.

Sitting just above Kitakyushu are Tokyo Verdy, the league’s hottest team. The Greens are top of the form table after a remarkable turnaround that has seen them win five straight, leaping from 16th to 6th with 18 goals scored and just four allowed in that time. Their most recent victims were bottom club FC Gifu, who were battered 3-0.

Elsewhere the other “Fallen Giants” and “Yo-Yos” have mostly struggled, although Sapporo have crept into the top half (9th) thanks to a five game unbeaten run. Kyoto, who were relegated along with FC Tokyo and Shonan at the end of 2010, are the worst off of this bunch and are mired down in 18th, while Oita are doing only marginally better and sit in 14th.

Shonan made a hot start, losing only one of their first nine, but suffered through a horror patch in June and into early July, when they lost five straight, and have completely fallen off the pace, slipping from second all the way down to 13th.

Yokohama FC have been huge disappointments for me, after I tipped them for promotion, and The Sky Blues lie just one place above Kyoto, although their Brazilian striker Kaio has run into some form, netting in four of the last six, including the winner in their 1-0 win over “Lifers” Mito last Saturday.

So, as we approach the halfway mark of the 38 game season, the main interest lies in whether the newcomers and recent additions to the league can sustain their challenges through the long, hot days of summer. Indications so far are that they will, but with three Fallen Giants in the top six, it shapes as a hugely entertaining battle for promotion.

You can read more about J2 and FC Tokyo on Ben's "On The Gas" blog and by following him on twitter @OnTheGas1999   


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