Opinion

How the Rugby World Cup could help Postecoglou to a J.League title

Ange Postecoglo Source: Getty Images

Former Socceroos Ange Postecoglou will have the Rugby World Cup to thank if his J.League side Yokohama F.Marinos end their 15 year title drought this December.

The tournament has thrown a spanner in the title challenge of FC Tokyo, long-time leaders. The Gasmen have been on top of the league since April but slipped down to second on Sunday with just six games of the season remaining.

With Tokyo never having won the league before, this is prime squeaky-bum time, in the famous words of Sir Alex Ferguson.

The problem is that it comes when the team have been robbed of their home and that does not help to settle the nerves.

From August to November the club’s Ajinomoto Stadium is on Rugby World Cup duty and is playing host to eight games featuring the oval ball.

That means Tokyo have been forced out onto the open road for eight successive league games.

Five have already been played and the capital club collected just five points. The most painful defeat came on Saturday against the struggling Sagan Tosu.

With just four minutes remaining, Tokyo were on track for a crucial three points thanks to a goal early in the second half scored directly from a Hirotaka Mita corner. 

Kenta Hasegawa’s men held out until four minutes from the end only for Yohei Toyoda to volley home from close range.

Worse was to come six minutes into injury time. Takashi Kanai bundled the ball over the line with what seemed to be his hand. Despite the Tokyo protests, the goal stood. Sagan Tosu recorded a famous 2-1 victory and took a big step towards safety.

“The result is not easy to accept,” said Hasegawa.

“I thought we were going to take the points but there are six games remaining.”

The next three are on the road, starting with a tricky trip to Vissel Kobe -the club of Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Lukas Podolski.

With Yokohama winning 2-0 at Júbilo Iwata, the gap behind Tokyo is now a single point. The Marinos, top scorers in the league, have collected 13 points from their last five games.

Three of the next four are against teams in the bottom four. Yokohama have exactly what Tokyo do not -momentum.

The one downside is Kashima Antlers. On Sunday, the eight-time champions went top above Tokyo with a 1-0 win at Cerezo Osaka. Just three points separate the top three.

Just finishing there would be a fine achievement for Postecoglou and Yokohama, a team that flirted with relegation last season and has not made the top four since 2013.

It takes time for any foreign coach to get to grips with the culture in Japan and many do not. In Postecoglou’s case, it has taken more time than usual as he has stayed consistent in demanding the players play in an expansive and fluid style.

“Of course, we need to be physically fit in order to execute our game but the most important part is in the mind,” Postecoglou told Japanese media in a recent interview. “We need to understand our football, especially when and where to make the pass. Football is similar to chess. I try and look three moves ahead.”

Or six games ahead. It won’t have escaped the former Socceroos boss the final game of the season comes against FC Tokyo. The J.League is famous for thrilling title races and this three-way battle should be no exception.

There is still plenty of football - and rugby - to be played.