By Dan Orlowitz
At the half-way point of the J-League season, Vegalta Sendai lead Sanfrecce Hiroshima by just two points at the top of the table, with Urawa Reds tagging close behind in third place.
While reigning champions Kashiwa Reysol have struggled under the weight of heavy expectations and a burdensome Asian Champions League schedule, leaders Vegalta are among several surprises as Goal.com reviews five things we have learned from the first half of the campaign.
|Vegalta Sendai are the legitimate team to beat
The Miyagi Prefecture club rode a wave of supporter sentiment after last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami disasters, finishing a surprising fourth under coach Makoto Teguramori. Vegalta's pace has not slowed down this season, as they have lost just two matches in spending the entire season so far with at least a share of first place.
They may be a team without popular stars but are chock-full of talent, including goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi, defender Jiro Kamata, midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi, and striker Wilson. With no national team regulars or fatigue from the Asian Champions League, the club is in a similar position to that of 2011 winners Kashiwa Reysol at this point last season, and are possibly even more capable of going the distance.
|Reds and Sanfrecce have found unexpected stability|
Both clubs entered the season with mixed expectations; the Reds were looking to restore their reputation after a disastrous 2011 that nearly ended in relegation, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima had stagnated under looming financial worries that forced manager Mihailo Petrovic's departure.
But Urawa Red Diamonds have found discipline under Petrovic and benefited from the emergence of Marcio Richardes, while Hisato Sato has carried Sanfrecce with his league-leading 12 goals as he and his team-mates have meshed under Hajime Moriyashi's 3-4-3 formation. At this stage it seems like they may be the only two sides capable of preventing Vegalta from waltzing away with the league championship.
|Dire Gamba Osaka are in relegation danger|
The much-maligned appointment of Jose Carlos Serrao as manager was a sign that the strongest club of the last decade was in for a rough season, but few could have predicted that half-way through the season Gamba would not only be on the bottom half of the table, but six points from relegation safety. They’ve allowed 38 goals, tied for worst in the league with last-place Consadole Sapporo. This comes despite spending €1 million Samurai Blue centre-back Yasuyuki Konno, a long-term target for the club.
Overall the season has been an embarrassment for club president Kikuo Kanamori, who has raised just 2% of the €20 million he had expected to raise from supporters toward the construction of a new stadium. Even the return of prolific striker Leandro may not be enough to prevent Gamba from the ultimate disgrace of relegation.
|Sagan Tosu are this season's feel-good story|
Sagan’s fans spent 13 seasons in Japan's second division, waiting for a chance to join their 'big brothers' in the top flight. After finally being given the opportunity, they have put in a fairly good account of themselves, currently sitting in 10th place.
It's a team of unknowns and misfits, from temperamental striker Yohei Toyoda to undervalued midfielder Kota Mizunuma. In his second year at the helm, coach Yoon Jong-Hwan continues to sculpt the team in his image, with largely positive results.
Should Sagan manage to avoid relegation, they would be the first Kyushu club since Oita Trinita to spend two consecutive seasons in the top flight. With a top-third finish and the right off-season signings, the plucky club are more than capable of beginning to shift the balance of power away from the Kanto and Kansai regions.
|The J-League's attendance struggles haven't stopped|
It's easy enough to justify the league's drop in attendance last season - nearly 800,000 overall - as an anomaly, mostly a result of the aftermath of the March 11 disasters. But turnout is still lagging this year. The new Saturday-only schedule should have eased burdens for families and traveling supporters alike, but the league's famous scheduling computer could not have predicted that rainy weather would occur on nearly half of of the match days for many Tokyo-area clubs.
Furthermore, youngsters such as Hiroshi Kiyotake and Hiroki Sakai are moving to Europe faster than ever, creating an undeniable talent drain in Japan's domestic game. While the J-League is quickly gaining a reputation as a bastion of player development, steps must be taken to ensure that it does not turn into a permanent feeder league for the Bundesliga and other top leagues.