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Friday, October 7, 2011

10 Games Left - The Run In

This international/Emperor's Cup break comes with ten games remaining in the J2 season, the perfect time to take stock of the run-in for the seven promotion challengers. Some have it harder than others: Tokushima, Chiba and The Spews all play five games against other sides in the top seven, but the fixture list has been kind to Tochigi and they fare the best, having just three games against fellow contenders.

I'm drawing the line after the top seven, even though Kitakyushu, Kumamoto and Shonan are within three points of The Spews, mainly because that trio of teams all have a negative goal difference. Any or all of them could catch fire and make up ground - and they all have at least three games left against the top seven, so they'll go a long way to deciding who does go up - but that goal difference is obviously a very big thing to overcome this late in the year.

Team-by-team then, in the order they currently stand, with games against fellow top seven teams in larger print and a brief comment/observation/question/all of the above afterwards.

FC Tokyo (57 points, +35 GD)
Okayama (H), Yokohama FC (A), Tosu (A), Oita (H), The Spews (H), Shonan (A), Mito (H), Tottori (A), Chiba (H), Sapporo (A).
  • Great win at Tokushima, now it appears it's just a matter of us holding our nerve (that didn't work out too well last year did it?!).
  • The defence has been superb as we've only let in five goals in our last 16 games following the 3-2 win at Mito.
  • Getting The Salad back will be huge for us in attack, and Naohiro Ishikawa is bang on form, changing games (but will he ever start one?!).
  • Tosu away shapes as a massive game, and we HAVE to win the Derby.
Sapporo (53, +15)
Tosu (H), Kyoto (A), Tottori (A), Tokushima (A), Kumamoto (H), The Spews (A), Oita (H), Kusatsu (A), Shonan (A), FC Tokyo (H).
  • The league's hottest team (last 14: W:11 D:1 L:2) have only got four games left at home, and their Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday road trip after Tosu at home will be crucial for them, especially as Tokushima away is the last of them.
  • They'll be relying on the goals of Yoshihiro Uchimura, Diogo and Fat Yusuke Kondo (gulp) to sustain their red-hot form, while they've just signed another Brazilian striker, Lemos, who could be a late wildcard if they can get him fit.
  • Will everything be decided before we visit on the final day?
Tosu (50, +25)
Sapporo (A), Toyama (A), FC Tokyo (H), Chiba (H), FC Gifu (A), Yokohama FC (H), Ehime FC (A), Kitakyushu (H), Tokushima (A), Kumamoto (H).
  • Almost as hot as Sapporo (only one loss in their last 13, but more draws), and its a massive game up in Hokkaido next weekend, then they'll fancy their chances against us and Chiba in consecutive home games, after the small matter of Toyama away in midweek.
  • The last four also look somewhat tricky on paper, but if league-leading scorer Yohei Toyoda can carry on banging them in (7 in the last 8) they're a decent bet for their first-ever promotion.
  • They've never been this close before: Will they bottle it? 
Chiba (50, +11)
Kusatsu (H), Mito (A), Tochigi SC (A), Tosu (A), Tokushima (H), Oita (A), Tottori (H), The Spews (A), FC Tokyo (A), Mito (H).
  • Only four home games left, and all but one of their remaining games against fellow contenders are away. Like Sapporo they've got three straight away after next weekend, and then a toughie at home against Tokushima to follow.
  • Ended September with a loss to Kyoto, but have had some decent wins, notably over Kitakyushu and Ehime, recently.
  • In the continued absence of Tor Hogne Aaroy (out since the end of July), Masaki Fukai has been fantastic for them, but they need the big Norwegian back sharpish or it'll be another go-round in J2 for them next year.
  • PREDICTION: Consecutive trips to Aji Sta in Matchdays 36 & 37 spell the end of their promotion chances.
Tokushima (49, +13)
Kyoto (A), The Spews (A), Yokohama FC (H), Sapporo (H), Chiba (A), Ehime FC (H), Tochigi SC (A), Shonan (A), Tosu (H), Okayama (A).
  • 26 橋内 優也 Yuya HASHIUCHI 
    They shouldn't be too disheartened about last Sunday, they took the game to us and were very impressive for large spells.
  • Tomohiro Tsuda and Yoichiro Kakitani will pose a threat to anyone they face, and even though they only have four home games left, and three of their five against fellow challengers are away, I just have a hunch that they're the best chance of the teams outside the top three to move up.
  • No real rhyme or reason to that opinion, they've obviously never been this high this late in the season before, but they play good football, and plus, J1 needs Yuya Hashiuchi.
Tochigi SC (43, +8)
Shonan (H), Kumamoto (A), Chiba (H), The Spews (H), Kitakyushu (A), Tottori (A), Tokushima (H), Mito (A), Oita (H), Kusatsu (A).
  • Victims of the Kumagaya Effect? Since our 0-0 there they've been absolutely dreadful, losing four straight (including to both Toyama and Gifu, and despite the last three all being at home) before drawing with the dirty greens last time out.
  • As I mentioned in the intro the fixtures shape up really well for them - all three of their remaining fellow all-top-seven games are at home - but in the form they're in its hard to imagine they'll be able to pick themselves up and turn it around. A shame after they were so good in the first six months of the season.
  • Can anyone besides Ricardo Lobo step up and carry the load for them?
The Spews (41, +20)
Mito (A), Tokushima (H), Toyama (H), Tochigi SC (A), FC Tokyo (A), Sapporo (H), Kyoto (A), Chiba (H), Kitakyushu (A), Shonan (H).
  • Despite Tokyo Nerdy calling their promotion push dead and buried, and their terrible record against the top six (P:7 W:0 D:4 L:3), I still think they've got a late run in them. All their away games look winnable (except Matchday 33!), and they've got five home games to come plus an 'away' derby - its all in their hands.
  • Tokushima at Kokuritsu will be a cracking game on Wednesday week, and if they can manage to win that, and avoid slip-ups either side against Mito and Toyama, they'll be chock full of confidence for their trip to Tochigi (and the Derby the weekend after).
  • They are the only team who benefit from playing so many games against the top six, as they need wins in those games to help them gobble up ground.
  • Scoring goals won't be a problem, but can their defence stop them going in up the other end?
So there you have it. With so many games remaining between the challengers, and, in this amazingly unpredictable season, every other game a potential banana skin, its next to impossible to predict which three teams will win the right to play in J1 in 2012. But don't worry, you didn't read this far for nothing, I'm going to gaze into my crystal ball and attempt the next to impossible...and probably fail spectacularly...

Ben's Predicted Final J2 Table (replaces my hugely popular Power Rankings!)
  1. FC Tokyo
  2. Sapporo
  3. Tokushima
  4. Tosu
  5. Chiba
  6. The Spews
  7. Tochigi SC

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