Antlers looking ominous

By Jeremy Walker

   TOKYO (July 26)--Six games into the second stage of the J.League championship and the signs are ominous... Kashima Antlers alone at the top with a maximum 18 points, their nearest rivals faltering and the pack struggling to pick up the chase. How much for a two-leg end-of-season play-off between the Antlers and the first-stage champions, Yokohama F Marinos?
   With nine games to go, Antlers are looking untouchable at the top of the 16-team table. Although they are only three points ahead of Gamba Osaka and four ahead of FC Tokyo, neither of these sides has the quality and depth to sustain a challenge. And defending champions Jubilo Iwata are already six points back in fourth place, with another of the big-spenders, Nagoya Grampus Eight, seventh with 10 points.

  On Wednesday night, Antlers made the short journey from Ibaraki to Chiba prefecture to take on JEF United Ichihara, and won 2-1. Two goals in two first-half minutes did the trick, the first a 25-metre free kick from Olympic team midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara and the second a header from star striker Atsushi Yanagisawa, back in the line-up after completing a two-match suspension. JEF United pulled one back with 11 minutes to go with a header from Takafumi Ogura but Antlers held on to make it six wins out of six, 18 points, 16 goals for and only two against.

  Championship form? You bet! Gamba had also won their opening five games, and took an early lead away to Avispa Fukuoka with a goal from Nino Bule, signed recently from NK Zagreb in Croatia.
   But Avispa's Argentine connection saw them home. Midfielder David Bisconti, a member of the Yokohama Marinos team which won the league championship in 1995, scored his first goal for Avispa in his third appearance since signing from Gimnasia Jujuy in Argentina, equalising in the 42nd minute. Then compatriot Eduardo Montoya ended Gamba's brave run, scoring the winner with eight minutes to go.

  FC Tokyo slipped up 2-1 at home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, for whom national team striker Tatsuhiko Kubo scored the first and created the second for Olympic team hopeful Chikara Fujimoto, both in the first half. FC Tokyo, who had also won their opening five games to collect 14 points (one of the victories came in sudden-death extra time, worth two points), set up a tense finish by scoring through substitute Takuya Jinno after 84 minutes, but Sanfrecce survived four minutes of injury time to claim three points.
   "I'm delighted for them because it takes a lot of character to come up here and beat a team as good as Tokyo," said Sanfrecce's Scottish manager, Eddie Thomson, the former national coach of Australia. "We had a good long chat after losing at home to Avispa last Saturday because we needed to start doing the basics again. "This time we were back to our mean old selves, giving nothing away at the back and supporting the forwards."

  Jubilo moved to fourth on 12 points, two behind Tokyo, with a 3-2 win away to Vissel Kobe, who suffered a sixth consecutive defeat at the start of the second stage. No doubting the man of the match here--World Cup veteran Masashi Nakayama, who netted twice for Jubilo to become only the second player to score 100 goals since the league kicked off in 1993.
   Nakayama's former national team strike partner, Kazuyoshi Miura, accomplished the feat earlier this season, and Nakayama reached the landmark in his 181st appearance. Even better for Nakayama and Jubilo was a last-minute winner from Naohiro Takahara, who did his claims for a place in Japan's Olympic squad a power of good.

  Avispa are fifth on 12, followed by Sanfrecce and Nagoya Grampus Eight on 10. Grampus thrashed struggling Cerezo Osaka 3-0 away and new Brazilian signing Uselei was on the scoresheet for the first time in Japan.
  Yokohama F Marinos beat Kashiwa Reysol with a first-half goal from South Korea's France World Cup captain, Yoo Sang Chul, while Kyoto drew 1-1 away to Shimizu and the Kawasaki derby between Frontale and Verdy at Todoroki ended goalless after extra time.