2016 J1 League Round 9: Underdogs defy doubters

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As the annual Golden Week Sprint began this weekend, several of the Meiji Yasuda ’s less fashionable sides served notice that they cannot be taken for granted.

Among the biggest surprises as the first stage hits its midway point are Omiya Ardija. Last season’s J2 champions have defied expectations that they would struggle upon their return to the top flight, playing compact, resolute football that has lifted them to fifth place after Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Kashima Antlers.

Omiya have made doing a lot with a little something of a specialty. They have scored 13 goals in 13 matches in all competitions, but despite that low return they are fifth in the league, they top their Nabisco Cup group, and they have put together a nine-match unbeaten run.

“We have a strong mentality. We defend with 11 players, so that’s why we concede few goals. I think we’re a good team with good quality,” Omiya winger Nejc Pecnik said after the Kashima match.

Kashima gave Omiya’s organization and resolve a stern test at NACK5 Stadium. Their 4-4-2 often resembled a 4-2-4 as they piled forward, pressuring their hosts into 21 turnovers in their defensive half and peppering Nobuhiro Kato’s goal with shots. Omiya held firm, though, thanks to 10 saves from man-of-the-match Kato and a compact shape that frustrated Kashima’s attempts at quick combination play.

“We are defending well with all the players, so we don’t leave too much space in the pocket,” Pecnik said. “Antlers have good wingers, so they can easily go one-on-one and beat you. That’s why we sometimes doubled them on the side and didn’t let them get too many crosses.”

The weekend’s biggest surprise came later on Sunday as last-place Shonan Bellmare traveled to Nissan Stadium and won 1-0 over Yokohama F Marinos, earning their first league victory of the season. Kaoru Takayama scored for Shonan in the 48th minute, with substitute Kayke missing a penalty kick in the 70th minute. It was the fourth time this season Yokohama dropped points at home, losing to Vegalta Sendai, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and Shonan while drawing with Urawa Reds.

Shonan Bellmare Hasegawa

Shonan Bellmare found their first league win of the season

Elsewhere on Sunday, Kashiwa Reysol stretched their winning streak to six matches in all competitions as they beat Vissel Kobe 2-0 at home. Ryosuke Yamanaka and Junya Ito scored the goals as Kashiwa improved their record under manager Takahiro Shimotaira – who took the job three matches into the season after Milton Mendes’ sudden resignation – to six wins, three draws, and one loss. Yohei Toyoda scored twice as Sagan Tosu won 2-0 at Sendai, their first win since February 27, while Ventforet Kofu drew 2-2 at Albirex Niigata.

On Saturday, second-bottom Avispa Fukuoka sprang another surprise with a 1-0 win at FC Tokyo. Wellington scored the winner on 61 minutes as Tokyo slipped to their fourth defeat in their past five matches. Jubilo Iwata, playing without injured top scorer Jay Bothroyd, beat Hiroshima 1-0 at home behind Taisuke Nakamura’s 65th-minute goal. The result lifted the promoted side above the defending J1 champions into sixth place.

Urawa confirmed their status as front-runners with a 4-1 home win over Nagoya Grampus, taking a two-point lead over Kawasaki Frontale midway through the first stage. Kawasaki, meanwhile, continued Gamba Osaka’s misery at Suita City Stadium as they won 1-0 through Yoshito Okubo’s 30th-minute goal. Gamba have lost six of eight matches at their new home this season.

Meiji Yasuda J1 League
Stage 1, Round 9

April 29

Gamba Osaka 0-1 Kawasaki Frontale
Urawa Reds 4-1 Nagoya Grampus
Jubilo Iwata 1-0 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
FC Tokyo 0-1 Avispa Fukuoka

April 30

Vegalta Sendai 0-2 Sagan Tosu
Omiya Ardija 0-0 Kashima Antlers
Kashiwa Reysol 2-0 Vissel Kobe
Albirex Niigata 2-2 Ventforet Kofu
Yokohama F Marinos 0-1 Shonan Bellmare