by Dan Orlowitz
Though currently staring down a three-point gap between them and first place, reigning champions Nagoya Grampus could be the team best-prepared to win this year's J-League season. They boast two of the league's top 10 scorers in Joshua Kennedy and Keiji Tamada, a defence that has conceded the third-fewest goals in the league (32), and one of J-League's smartest managers in Dragan 'Pixy' Stojkovic.
"We have to keep winning to make the title race interesting."
Dragan "Pixy" Stojkovic
Grampus’ remaining matches are, save for Yokohama F. Marinos, against teams that should pose little serious threat save for that of causing overconfidence. Most importantly, they've already been down this path before and will be mentally prepared to withstand the pressure of a late championship run.
Stojkovic’s biggest challenge will be keeping the squad focused in the last month of the season, including a two-week interruption for international matches and the possibility that internationalists Kennedy and Jungo Fujimoto will not be in top form after two tough away trips for World Cup qualifying.
Grampus have only been on top for one week this season and will need to rely on both Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka stumbling, but an unbeaten run could more likely than not mean a second consecutive championship.
by Ben Mabley
Devil-may-care masters of the old “you score two, we’ll score three” school, Gamba Osaka remain comfortably the most prolific side in J1 with 66 goals from 29 matches. A trio of major transfers in mid-season, however, put the team through four distinct iterations before arriving at their latest philosophy: that the steadying, pragmatic influence of past experience holds the key to title glory. With the spine of their 2005 championship-winning team, including Japan star Yasuhito Endo, still largely intact, Gamba undoubtedly boast the finest ingredients for their recipe to deliver another taste of success.
"We all have five matches left, so the only thing we can do is take them one match at a time."
- Gamba manager
The only trouble is that, historically, Gamba are also notorious bottlers; even centre-backs Satoshi Yamaguchi and Sota Nakazawa both admitted a chronic inability to win when it counts ahead of May’s Asian Champions League tie with neighbours Cerezo Osaka (which they lost). The defenders are best placed to identify this tendency, as it’s usually their fault – only Ventforet Kofu and whipping boys Avispa Fukuoka have conceded more – while goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya gifted two horrendous goals (one a fluffed clearance, the other directly from a corner) to Nagoya Grampus in a 4-1 reverse last Saturday and generally exhibits all the presence of drywall.
With Endo’s fitness another ongoing concern, coach Akira Nishino must strike the right balance to maintain composure without restricting opportunities for goal-hungry summer arrival Rafinha. Gamba’s run-in is not the hardest, but their best chance will probably be to enter the final day – as they did six years ago – in second position.
by Cesare Polenghi
With five rounds remaining, Kashiwa Reysol can become the first club in the history of the J-League to win the J1 championship as a newly promoted team. Manager Nelsinho has improved a Reysol side which dominated the second tier last season by adding to Leandro Dominguez with another top-class Brazilian, George Wagner.
"Our opponent isn't pressure, it's teams like Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus."
- Reysol manager Nelsinho
With the exception of Hiroki Sakai, the team might not provide national-team calibre players to Japan, but have repeatedly shown quality deserving of a championship.
Kashiwa Stadium boasts only around 10,000 seats, but they are always packed by some of Japan’s most passionate supporters, providing an extra boost to the 'Sun Kings'. Only two of their remaining five games are at home, but three are against rivals with nothing left to play for this season.
Nelsinho’s main concern will be Reysol’s inexperience; neither their youngsters nor their veterans have had many opportunities to clinch titles. The team’s form in recent games has been uneven and the season finale at Urawa Reds might prove to be their biggest challenge of the year.
Most importantly, unlike Gamba and Grampus, who need some luck, Reysol control their own destiny.
|KEY MATCHES | Three fixtures that could determine each team's fate
||Why It Matters
|Urawa Reds v Kashiwa Reysol on December 3
||A chance Reysol could clinch the title in famous Saitama Stadium in front of Japan's most notorious supporters
|Gamba Osaka v Kashima Antlers on November 3
||In this big clash between rivals, the visiting Antlers may be exhausted from the J-League Cup final and easy hunting
|Nagoya Grampus v Montedio Yamagata on November 26
||Montedio will likely be relegated by this point and have nothing to lose, opening the doors to a possible upset a la Yokohama FC in 2007