Friday, November 21, 2014

J1 - The Last Three

When I posted The Run-In 11 games remained in the season, and the J1 table looked considerably different. Sure, Urawa were top then, still are, and can win the title at home on Saturday, and with the exception of Kashiwa (in) and Nagoya (out) the teams mentioned then are the same here, but naturally there’s been significant movement at both ends of the table since the middle of September, so in this piece we’ll look ahead to the final three games of the season and try to work out how the title race, battle for ACL spots and the #RelegationDogfight will pan out.

Title Contenders

1. Urawa 61pts (+23) joint best defence (27GA), second best home record (played one game fewer than best (Kashiwa))
-Last 5: W2 D2 L1
-Remaining fixtures: Gamba H, Tosu A, Nagoya H
It's there on a plate for them, as we've known for ages, their defence has been excellent, Shinzo Koroki is a good chance to return this week and their home record stands them in good stead, but Gamba head to Sai Sta with nothing to lose on Saturday, Tosu are the fifth best home team in the league (and could be back in the ACL spots after Matchday 32), and Nagoya's away record, that I've mentioned time and again on the podcast, is legit - 29 of their 41 points have come on their travels. I said on the pod this week they're going to bottle it (and truth be told, I hope they prove me wrong), here I'll go further and say they won't win again this season.

2. Gamba Osaka 56 (+24) best record since World Cup break – taken 41 of 51 points available
-Last 5: W3 D1 L1
-Remaining fixtures: Urawa A, Kobe H, Tokushima A
With 11 games to go they were fifth, having risen from the relegation zone at the World Cup break, and while Atsushi Yanagisawa halted their momentum with his stoppage time equalizer in Matchday 31, they picked up right where they left off in the Nabisco final, coming from behind to win, something they haven't had to do much of in the second half of the season. That kind of determined display just strengthens my resolve to say I think they're going to win all of their remaining games and win the league.

ACL Contenders

– If Gamba Osaka win the Emperor's Cup, the team who finishes 4th will qualify for the ACL

3. Kashima 54 (+22) league’s highest scorers (58GF), best away record
-Last 5: W1 D2 L2
-Remaining fixtures: Kawasaki H, Cerezo A, Tosu H
They've drawn with Urawa and won away at Niigata the last two times out, but the back-to-back 3-2 home losses to Gamba and Kashiwa (when they threw away second half leads both times) put paid to any title hopes they had. Antlers still have two massive clashes left that will determine if they play in the ACL in 2015, and wins in their next two should be enough to settle that: I think they will (and they could even sneak second if they win all three and Urawa completely implode). 

4. Tosu 53 (+6) lowest scorers in top half (38GF), best away record in the league
-Last 5: W3 D0 L2
-Remaining fixtures: Tokushima A, Urawa H, Kashima A
We've been ready to write off their ACL chances numerous times, but after their consecutive away beltings at Kashiwa and Gamba they've won three of their past four at home to keep themselves in the hunt. After they beat Tokushima I think they'll get something from the Reds game, which leaves Antlers away on the final day...and they'll just come up short.

5. Kawasaki 51 (+13) 3rd highest scorers (52GF)
-Last 5: W1 D0 L4
-Remaining fixtures: Kashima A, Hiroshima H, Kobe A
Second when The Run-In was posted, now the end of the season can't come soon enough for them. Since the end of September they've taken just one point from 12 available in games against the teams 12th-through-15th in the table. Will have to win at least two of their last three to have any chance of a top three finish, and with Kengo Nakamura injured, I can't see it.

6. Kashiwa 51 (+3) top of the form table (13pts from last 15 available), best home record in the league
-Last 5: W4 D1 L0
-Remaining fixtures: Omiya A, Shimizu H, Niigata A
Reysol were two points behind Gamba with 11 games to go, when I wrote “I don’t believe any of those three (Kobe, FC Tokyo & Kashiwa) are capable of going on an extended WINNING run to push for an ACL spot, let alone the title.” I may ultimately be proved right, as Kashiwa are three points and a significant amount of goal difference behind Antlers, but they're definitely finishing with the wettest of sails (4 game winning run) and you wouldn't bet against them winning all of their remaining three. God knows what Nelsinho said to them after their dire 4-0 loss at FC Tokyo at the end of September, but whatever it was, it worked a treat. If Gamba do make it a cup double in the Emperor's, then Reysol are my tip to make it into the ACL in 4th place.

 The #RelegationDogfight

13. Kofu 36 (-6) second lowest scorers but fifth best defence, joint second worst away record in the league (13 pts from 16)
-Last 5: W2 D2 L1
-Remaining fixtures: Hiroshima H, FC Tokyo H, Shimizu A
Will secure their safety with two games to spare if they beat Hiroshima and both Omiya and Cerezo lose (their goal difference edge means an Omiya draw would also all-but-mathematically be enough too), and though I slated them in The Run-In for some of the snoozefests they've put on, at the end of the day Hiroshi Jofuku deserves enormous credit for hauling his team out of the muck, and their come from behind wins in the last two over Kawasaki and Cerezo have been character-packed.

14. Sendai 34 (-14)
-Last 5: W2 D2 L1
-Remaining fixtures: Cerezo H, Tokushima H, Hiroshima A
The draw at Gamba last time out was monumental, and means their equation is now pretty simple: Win the next two against the bottom two at home and they'll be almost certainly safe (after reading on you'll see why I say that). Pretty simple equation, pretty simple outcome - they'll win both and other results below them will mean Vegalta will be in J1 in 2015.

15. Shimizu 34 (-16)
-Last 5: W3 D0 L2
-Remaining fixtures: Nagoya H, Kashiwa A, Kofu H
Fascinating how the fixtures have worked out - Shimizu and Omiya play the same two teams in their next two - but S-Pulse have drawn the short straw, as Nagoya are the second best away team in the league (sorry, that's probably the last time I'll mention that stat in this piece) and Kashiwa have the best home record. If I'm going to keep banging on about those stats then I have to trust in them, so even though you should never count out a side fighting for it's life etc. etc., I don't think they'll manage more than a point in the next two, and a win on the final day will not be enough to save them.

16. Omiya 32 (-16) worst record since World Cup break (6 pts from 27 available)
-Last 5: W2 D1 L2
-Remaining fixtures: Kashiwa H, Nagoya A, Cerezo H
The main thing they can hang their hat on is that they've never been relegated, and always found a way to dig their way out of trouble, but they've also never been in the bottom three this late in a top flight season before (in three of the last eight years 2009, 2007 & 2006 - they've been 15th with three games left). With Sendai a tremendous chance to win their next two at home their only chance looks to be to crawl ahead of S-Pulse, and it's almost certain the final relegation spot will come down to the final day...I think they'll win one of their next two, and beat Cerezo in Matchday 34 to stay up.

17. Cerezo 30 (-7) joint second worst away record in the league (13 pts from 15)
-Last 5: W1 D1 L3
-Remaining fixtures: Sendai A, Kashima H, Omiya A
There should be books written about their season. Cerezo have managed just 14 points in 18 games since the World Cup break, and their confirmation as the latest Too-Good-To-Go-Down-But-Relegated-Anyway J1 side will be confirmed on Saturday if they lose at Sendai, Shimizu beat Nagoya and Kofu don’t lose against Hiroshima. They're almost certainly going to need to win all three to have any chance of surviving, but there's no evidence from the first 31 games of the season that they have the required mettle to beat two fellow relegation candidates, plus an ACL-chasing Kashima. Bit early for this, but anyone want to nominate a candidate for the TGTGDBRA team for 2015? 

18. Tokushima 13 (-56)
-Last 5: W0 D1 L4
-Remaining fixtures: Tosu H, Sendai A, Gamba H
Vortis still need 2 points to avoid finishing with the worst record in J1 single stage season history (2012 Sapporo & 2013 Oita both 14 pts), a record they might hold for a very long time with the two-stage season bullshit format set to return in 2015. Still not won a league game at home all year, and considering who their visitors are in their final two at The Pocari Sweat, that's another unwanted record they're likely to hold at least a share of, well, forever.

The Wrap-Up

Given my history with J1 predictions it's a nailed-on certainty I'll end up with egg on my face after all of this (watch Urawa eek out the win they need on Saturday), but as Confucius said if you don't stick your neck out you can't get it chopped off. So I have Gamba winning the league, Urawa and Kashima second and third, though not necessarily in that order (!) (with Kashiwa taking the fourth ACL spot if Gamba win the Emperor's Cup), and Shimizu going down along with Cerezo and Tokushima.

Enjoy the final three games of the season, with so much on the line it's certainly going to be a nail-biting, action-packed final three weeks.

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