J.League Preview: All to play for in Saitama derby, Sagan Tosu face Yokohama
The Saitama derby is the highlight of a J.League weekend which will be a last audition for a place in Japan's FIFA World Cup squad.
Alberto Zaccheroni will name his squad for Brazil on Monday, two days after the only J.League squad comprised exclusively of Asian players strive to maintain their title charge in Round 13 which sees as their closest challengers face decidedly tougher tests.
It has been a mixed week for Urawa Reds ahead of their crunch clash at city rivals Omiya Ardija on Saturday.
The 2007 Asian champions returned to the J.League summit for the first time in four years, but stayed there just a few days due to a goalless draw at lowly Ventforet Kofu.
That stalemate gave Shusaku Nishikawa his third straight clean sheet, and defender Tomoaki Makino and forward Genki Haraguchi are eager to squeeze into Japan's World Cup squad alongside their goalkeeper.
"It's up to coach Zaccheroni," said Haraguchi. "All I can do is go and play my heart out in the derby."
Urawa's last two trips across Saitama have ended in defeat and Omiya will be out to make it four games unbeaten and escape the relegation zone.
Sagan Tosu, pre-season relegation favourites, will aim to consolidate top spot at struggling Yokohama F. Marinos.
Industrious striker Yohei Toyoda, arguably the player of the season thus far, will hope that inspiring Sagan to a fourth successive away victory will be enough to convince Zaccheroni to take him to Brazil.
Fifth-placed Albirex Niigata are another side making a surprise threat to be crowned champions of Japan for the first time. Masaaki Yanagishita's men, unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions, are away to seventh-placed Kashiwa Reysol, for whom the on-song Masato Kudo is another forward with designs on a World Cup place.
Kashima Antlers, in third, will look to recover from back-to-back losses at Kawasaki Frontale, who are expected to rest players ahead of a crucial AFC Champions League game.
Fourth-placed Sanfrecce Hiroshima, another team with continental commitments, could also field a changed side at home to mid-table Shimizu S-Pulse.
A four-game winless run has plummeted Vissel Kobe from the summit, but they will hope to arrest their slide at a Ventforet Kofu team who are goalless and winless in three outings.
Akira Nishino will take centre stage as his Nagoya Grampus side entertain Gamba Osaka, whom he guided to domestic and continental glory during an unforgettable 10-year reign.
Tokyo have registered three consecutive 1-0 defeats to slide towards the relegation zone. Massimo Ficcadenti’s side will, though, expect to get back to winning ways at rock-bottom Tokushima Vortis, who have lost 11 of their 12 games this season, while Cerezo Osaka host second-bottom Vegalta Sendai.