The logjam at the top of J2 got a whole lot more interesting on Wednesday night, when Sapporo roared to the top of the table following a 4-2 win over The Spews. The red and blacks have won eight of their last nine, including four straight, and we have to tip our caps to them (and not only for beating the dirty greens!), as they seem to have timed their run perfectly, climbing from 9th at the end of Matchday 17 to the summit just nine games later (though they have played a game more, of course).
Our game in hand is against Kitakyushu at Aji Sta next Wednesday, but before that we return to Kokuritsu on Sunday afternoon to face Yokohama FC, who are coming off a 7-2 shellacking at the hands of The Spews, also at The National Stadium, last Sunday. This will be just our third league meeting: we won both games in their only J1 season, 2007 (the second, coincidentally, was 'away' at Kokuritsu); while we split a pair of Cracker Cup group stage games that year.
Eleven goals in our last two, happy days are here again, and it looks like we'll finally get to see Number 20 in the XI again.... Gon-chan! Welcome back son!
Yes, thats right, after Hitoshi Shiota suffered an injury to his left ankle in the warm-up to our 5-0 romp over Ehime FC last Saturday (but managed to soldier on and play the full 90 minutes), it appears Shuichi Gonda will at last get the chance to recapture his rightful status as our number 1 goalkeeper.
Shiota has been steady enough in his unbroken 15-game stint between the sticks, equalling the club record for consecutive clean sheets along the way (as I mentioned in Part 2 of Halfway Home), but his distribution and decision-making, especially at coming for crosses, is and has always been questionable.
And while Shio is undoubtedly a firm favourite of the Tokyo Kop, Gonda is our best 'keeper, period, and he tuned up for his potential first start since the 1-0 win at Kumamoto in Matchday 10 with a clean sheet in Japan Under 22's 2-0 win over Malaysia in an Olympic qualifier on Wednesday night.
Elsewhere, the 10 outfield players pick themselves, provided Sotan Tanabe has recovered from his shoulder problem that forced him off in the 60th minute against Ehime. As the club posted a photo from training on Tuesday showing him warming up with the rest of the squad, we're assuming he'll be fine.
We've still heard nothing about the status of Roberto Cesar, his '3 week' calf strain has already seen him miss five games, and we have no need to rush Daiki Takamatsu back to support Lucas with Daisuke Sakata on board, so I'm expecting the 18 to be unchanged.
It's been a nightmare of a season for the Sky Blues to this point, they are mired down in 15th, having been as low as 19th for a total of five weeks, but despite all that they've actually posted some reasonable results against top-half sides: they've drawn home and away against Chiba; beat Sapporo back in June; and beat Tochigi and drew with Kitakyushu as part of a six game unbeaten run that was halted by Ehime two weekends ago.
Their current position (and season as a whole, really) has made a total mockery of my prediction from the J2 Power Rankings pre-season edition that they'd be in the promotion battle (I had them 3rd if you can't be arsed clicking on the link)... So, while I wipe the egg from my face, here's their XI from that battering
Kaio is their main striker and leading scorer, with seven goals, young winger Kenji Arabori is one to keep an eye out for, while Takachi will be up for the central midfield scrap with Hideto Takahashi and
On paper this looks a total mismatch - the home team coming off 6-1 and 5-0 wins, the visitors 7-2 losers the last time out - but as the Sky Blue defence hadn't conceeded more than three goals in a game until last Sunday (and the only time they'd let in three was in Matchday 2), that result appears a total aberration.
We certainly have the ability to score goals against these, but the natural pessimist in me fears that we'll have it nowhere near as easy as the dirty greens did on the same ground last weekend. There's bound to be a reaction from them to being embarrassed so completely, as we saw from Kyoto last weekend, they bounced back from the 6-1 thumping we gave them by beating Kusatsu 3-1.
That said, with Lucas having come good, Tanabe and even Roswell scoring goals, and our growing threat from set pieces, you have to like our chances to keep pace with Sapporo, or perhaps even overtake them, as they have a difficult home game against 3rd-placed Tokushima on Saturday afternoon.
I doubt it'll be 7-something, but its gotta be a....Home Win.