Title goes down to the wire... again
It may not be quite as exciting as the 2005 climax, but J-League fans could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as the competition enters the final weekend. Since switching to a single stage format four seasons ago, the destination of the league title has been decided on the final day ever since. This year will prove no exception.
On paper the destination of the title looks like a foregone conclusion. Kashima Antlers are not only Japan's most successful club with a record five J-League titles, they are also the defending champions. On the final weekend they travel north to the island of Hokkaido, where they take on bottom club Consadole Sapporo at the high-tech Sapporo Dome - once the scene of a rare England victory over Argentina at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
To the uninitiated a Kashima win appears certain. After five seasons in the Second Division, Sapporo were only promoted back to the top flight this year. It has been a miserable return. The financially strapped northern club have spent almost the entire campaign rooted to the bottom of the table, suffering the ignominy of relegation months ago. Yet this top versus bottom scenario is familiar to J-League fans, and it's a particularly painful one for supporters of Urawa Reds.
Urawa are Japan's best supported club, and on the final day last season they travelled to bottom club Yokohama FC with a one-point lead over bitter rivals Kashima in the standings. Roared on by a crowd of just under 47,000 at the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama - the vast majority of whom were Reds fans.
The afternoon started badly for Urawa as they went behind to an early goal, and as news filtered through from Kashima Stadium, things got progressively worse. Despite having won just four times all season, Yokohama FC somehow conjured a 1-0 victory over the champions elect. Meanwhile, Kashima Antlers went on to hammer Shimizu S-Pulse 3-0, meaning that Kashima moved to the top of the table and pipped their arch-rivals to the title in the process.
Just a year earlier Urawa had beaten second placed Gamba Osaka 3-2 on the final day in front of a record J-League crowd of 62,241 at Saitama Stadium to lift their solitary league title, but even that couldn't match the drama of the previous campaign.
In 2005, no less than five teams went into the final day with a chance of lifting the league crown. Cerezo Osaka were the best placed as they led city rivals Gamba Osaka by a point, with Urawa Reds, Kashima Antlers and JEF United Chiba all sitting a point further back.
Ultimately it was the kind of final day that not even the most clichéd of Hollywood hacks would dare script. Things were going swimmingly for Cerezo until ten minutes from time, but with a nickname like the Flaming Pinks it was perhaps a tad optimistic to expect Cerezo to remain resolute under pressure.
The news that Gamba had surged into a 3-2 lead away at Kawasaki Frontale seemed inconsequential, with Cerezo enjoying a 2-1 lead themselves over FC Tokyo. Yet with seconds ticking away in stoppage time and the first letters engraved on the trophy, FC Tokyo incredibly scored an equaliser. It sent Gamba to the top of the table, they added a fourth in stoppage time for good measure, and Cerezo Osaka went on to finish the season in fifth!
While the 2008 campaign won't come to quite such a dramatic a conclusion, league officials will be delighted that three teams remain in the hunt for the title. Kashima lead the way, but Nagoya Grampus are just two points off the pace, while the free-scoring Kawasaki Frontale are a point further back. Kawasaki are also just four goals worse off than Kashima in terms of goal difference - having won their past two games 4-0.
A stoppage-time goal against fallen giants Jubilo Iwata last weekend may have helped Kashima take an important step towards back-to-back league titles, but victory is rarely a sure thing in the J-League. ESPNsoccernet columnist Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger may disagree, but at the rate that it's going the J-League may soon have cause to label itself the most exciting domestic league in the world.