By Jeremy Walker
TOKYO (June 23)--As the second stage of the J.League prepares
to kick off on Saturday, there'll be as much interest at the bottom
of the table as at the top over the coming months.
Since Japan's professional league started in 1993 it has been
played in two sections. The winners of the first and second stages
meet in a two-leg play-off to decide the overall champions for
The only year the two-stage system was not used was in 1996,
when the league was played in a European-style format with no
play-offs and won by Kashima Antlers.
Relegation was introduced last year and produced a major surprise
when Urawa Reds, Japan's best-supported club and with huge financial
backing from Mitsubishi, went down along with Bellmare Hiratsuka,
the club who signed Hidetoshi Nakata from high school and sold
him to Perugia in Italy's Serie A. To determine which two clubs
are relegated, the points from the first and second stages are
added together, unlike at the top, where the aggregate points
over the season is irrelevant.
Last season, for example, second-stage champions Shimizu S-Pulse
collected 16 points more overall than first-stage champions Jubilo
Iwata, but Jubilo won the championship in a penalty shoot-out.
For this reason, there is no let-up in the pressure at the bottom.
At the end of the first stage, Kyoto Purple Sanga were 16th
and last with only seven points from 15 games, three points adrift
of Kawasaki Frontale.
Avispa Fukuoka occupy the safe 14th slot with 15 points, five
clear of the relegation zone and already eight ahead of Kyoto.
So the bottom two sides have considerable ground to make up
in the course of the second stage.
Kyoto sacked their manager, Shu Kamo, in between the two stages.
The former national team boss had not been in the best of health,
so the club relieved him of any further responsibility and replaced
him with his assistant, Gert Engels.
If anyone can rescue Kyoto it's Engels, who knows Japanese football
inside out after joining the coaching staff of the now defunct
Yokohama Flugels for the start of the league in 1993.
He did not become manager in his own right until 1998, shortly
before the club's major sponsor, All Nippon Airways, announced
they would be disbanding the team and merging with the Yokohama
Marinos for the 1999 season.
Engels, with the club on death row, put together an incredible
run of results which enabled Flugels to win the Japanese FA's
Emperor's Cup on an emotional New Year's Day 1999.
Several players switched from the Flugels to the Marinos (now
known as the F Marinos) but German coach Engels took over at JEF
His time there was not successful, however, and he was sacked
midway through the 1999 season.
He joined Kyoto as assistant to Kamo for the start of this season
and now finds himself in another managerial hot seat. And just
to make his debut as Kyoto manager even more interesting, it's
at home to JEF United!
JEF finished 11th with 19 points in the first stage, and Engels
knows Kyoto must be beating teams like this at home if they are
to climb the table.
Kawasaki Frontale, second division champions last year but in
grave danger of dropping straight back, also have a vital early
game, at home to Avispa Fukuoka, who are just five points ahead
of them in the relegation fight.
Elsewhere on Saturday, the first stage champions Yokohama F
Marinos return to the ground where they clinched the first-stage
title, Tokyo's National Stadium, to take on FC Tokyo, who were
sixth in their first season in the top flight.
First-stage runners-up Cerezo Osaka are at home to Shimizu S-Pulse
in the most attractive game of the day, as S-Pulse were third
in the first stage.
Kashiwa Reysol, fourth in the first stage, will entertain fifth-placed
Jubilo Iwata, and another game between potential second-stage
champions is Nagoya Grampus Eight against Kashima Antlers.
Grampus will be without their Yugoslav playmaker Dragan Stojkovic,
who has been delayed at Euro 2000 by his team's roller-coaster
ride to the quarterfinals.
Gamba Osaka (17 points) entertain Verdy Kawasaki (20) with both
teams far from safe of being sucked into the relegation battle,
but the Sanfrecce Hiroshima-Vissel Kobe game has a distinctly
going-nowhere mid-table look about it.