Match to Watch

Kawasaki Frontale, Nagoya Grampus and Sagan Tosu have held the top three spots - and with it berths in the AFC Champions League - for much of the season, but they are not without their challengers. Yokohama F·Marinos sit in fourth place, just two points back of Sagan, while Vissel Kobe are right on their heels, a point back. And they both have at least one match in hand on Sagan.

And this weekend? Marinos and Vissel clash.

Marinos come into the match as the hottest team in the MEIJI YASUDA J1 LEAGUE, having won four of their last five and not lost since their first match of the season. They’ve been nothing short of sensational, and while Vissel have not been quite as good of late, they have a nine-match unbeaten streak of their own.

Vissel have been led by their defense, which has not conceded multiple goals in a match since March 20th. Daiya Maekawa has been stout in goal, but what’s been most impressive is how rarely he’s been challenged. Vissel’s back line has done such a good job denying opponents chances that the excellent Maekawa hasn’t even had to get involved much.

That strong defense will be tested by Marinos, though. Daizen Maeda and Ado Onaiwu have scored eight goals each, leaving them joint second in the league scoring charts. Of course, ahead of them is Vissel’s Kyogo Furuhashi, so this match will not be short on starring goal scorers.

Star power up front? Check. Good defenses? Check. The midfield? Well, that is one area that Marinos appear to have an advantage. The men in the middle do such an outstanding job springing attacks and dictating not just the pace of play, but where it will be played that opposing teams really struggle to find any sort of rhythm. That will be where Vissel are most challenged, and we’ll see if they can cool down the league’s hottest team.

Player to Watch

If Vissel are going to maintain any sort of control of the midfield, and even start to dictate from it, will be because of Hotaru Yamaguchi. The magnificent central midfielder is rightly known for his tough tackling and ability to eliminate space, but he is also a quick passer who helps let Vissel find time and structure with the ball.

Simply put, as Yamaguchi goes, so goes the Vissel midfield.

To make matters a little tougher on Yamaguchi, it’s likely that his midfield will be outnumbered. Vissel play almost exclusively with just two in the center of the park, while Marinos like to play with three. That sounds daunting for Yamaguchi, and it is part of why he’ll have to be so good, but it also means that Vissel will have numerical advantages elsewhere, especially up top. If Yamaguchi is good and can spring the Vissel forwards, they have a chance to feast and walk out of Yokohama in fourth (or maybe even third) place.

Storyline to watch

F.C.Tokyo got off to a bright start this season and were hanging around towards the top of the table, but they’ve now lost four in a row and find themselves outside of the top half. Exactly what is ailing the club isn’t entirely clear, though.

The 21 goals they have given up are the most of any club not in the bottom two, so that appears to be the culprit, but that’s not quite it. While that is a big problem over the course of the season, it is an attack gone quiet that has to be alarming manager Kenta Hasegawa.

Tokyo have just one goal in their last three games in the league. Even in the cup, where they’ve already clinched the group and are defending champions, they’ve scored just two goals in their last three matches. Simply put, the goals haven’t been there for F.C.Tokyo.

Fixing the defense is needed, but there are likely limits there. F.C.Tokyo are not likely to start ranking among the best defensive teams in the league in the next couple weeks, but they should be able to get goals in bunches. Diego Oliveira is a very good striker and he’s backed by plenty of creative talent. What Tokyo need are goals, and to stop this losing streak.