So why this update, now? Good question, and I have two reasons for you: 1) I have a very slow day at work today; and 2) Bloody Kashima.
You see, I was so disgusted at our second half capitulation in the 3-2 loss at their place at the end of May, that I just couldn't be arsed. And even though we were dreadful again against them at Kokuritsu on the 5th (On my birthday! How could we have been so shite on my birthday!!!), refer to 1), and the symmetry that the two losses against them provides. With those two losses as brackets, we'll get up to date and then I'll try and keep this going weekly# for the season's last six matchdays and however far we go in the Emperor's Cup.
# - no promises, though
We went into the Matchday 13 clash at Kashima seventh in the table, took a totally deserved 2-0 half time lead through Tadanari Lee (remember him?!) and a belter from Kazuma Watanabe, but then shat the bed after the break as they scored three times in 20 minutes and we showed a stunning lack of backbone.
That was followed by a heart-breaking 1-0 loss at home to Hiroshima, who we more than matched for the entire game before they were awarded a dubious free kick just outside our box in the 94th minute and sub Park Hyung Jin curled in the set piece.
Things picked up from there though, and we went six unbeaten, starting with yet another league draw against Urawa (2-2, even though we threw away a 2-0 lead in the last 10 minutes). A fast start at Niigata saw us cruise by them 3-0, and then we recovered from Kofu's goal in the first minute and tore them apart late on at home in a 4-1 romp. Two of the next three were drawn: away at Shimizu was a bit of a snooze-fest but the away Classico against Kawasucki was a belter - we twice came from behind and Kosuke Ota's brilliant free kick earnt us a point; those two were sandwiched around a regulation 2-0 home win over Oita, Watanabe bagging both to take himself top in the J1 golden boot race.
Despite that unbeaten run we ended it in the same position we began this update in - seventh - and failing to win in the next three, with the table so tight in the middle, saw us slide down to 12th. We were very poor in the final third and Yokohama made us pay with two well taken goals in a 2-0 home loss (we're up to Matchday 21 here, by the way), we stymied Iwata in a 0-0 that meant a lot more to them than it did to us, and then I called for Ranko Popovic's head after a horrendous first hour at home (Kokuritsu) against Tosu saw us 2-0 down, two late goals from Sota 'Lazarus' Hirayama and Watanabe saw us pull level but then a minute later we dozed off and Yohei Toyoda won it for them.
For the record my tweet was more in frustration, but I'd begun to think Popo had taken us as far (and it wasn't very far) as he could, but showing how much I know we then proceeded to win four on the spin, the first two against teams in the top three, which saw us shoot up seven spots to fifth. We won away at Hiroshima for the second straight year, 2-1 thanks to Takuji Yonemoto's winner, his first league goal in four years, beat Urawa 3-2 in a thriller at Kokuritsu for our first league win over them in nine years with Lazarus nodding in the winner in the 90th minute, then eased past Nagoya 2-0 away and rode a Lucas hat-trick, his first in J1, to a 5-2 triumph at Omiya.
So fifth with seven games to go, with five of them at home, had us buzzing and dreaming of the possibility of a return to the ACL, but standing in our way were ... Kashima. I was sat in the press seats for the first time ever at a J.League game, on my birthday, with Sean Carroll and Dan Orlowitz for company ahead of another first for me, an appearance on FOOT! Wednesday, and ... they destroyed us. Two goals in the first ten minutes, another two for good measure in the second half before Lazarus got the dictionary definition of a consolation goal with seven minutes to go (I used the same line on FOOT! too, if that sounds familiar).
So, not for the first time, Antlers put us back in our place, meaning we finished this catch-up where we began it: seventh in J1.
Somewhere in between that ruck of games we gained sweet, sweet revenge for getting knocked out of the Emperor's Cup last year by smashing JFL Yokogawa err... 1-0 in extra time, and then last Sunday we beat J2 Chiba on pens after a 1-1 draw to progress to the fourth round.
On to Niigata at home this Saturday evening, then.