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JFL - Round 31 (Saturday)
Honda FC moved ever closer to confirming the JFL title for this season on Saturday with a 2-1 at FC Kariya. All the goals cam in the first half, Kazuhiro Yoshimura's 36th-minute winner meaning that Honda are six points ahead of their nearest challengers with just three more games remaining. And there can be no doubt that those nearest challengers are Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo, for whom star striker Tetsuya Okubo was on target four times as his side crushed Ryutsu Keizai University 8-0 away from home - a result that makes even more difficult Rosso Kumamoto's aim of a top-two finish and a J-League place.

The other two fixtures on Saturday were played out further down the rankings, although Alo's Hokuriku moved up one place to sixth as they beat Mitsubishi Mizushima 1-0 with a goal from Kazuma Matsushita. Two second half strikes meanwhile gave Arte Takasaki a good 2-0 victory at Sagawa Printing, enabling the Gunma side to leapfrog Printing, Kariya and also SC Tottori as they push for a mid-table finish.

18 Nov 06 - Ooooh, very smart - FC Kariya before their match with Honda FC

Ooooh, very smart - FC Kariya before their match with Honda FC

Sat 18 Nov: FC Kariya 1-2 Honda FC
Sat 18 Nov: Mitsubishi Mizushima 0-1 Alo's Hokuriku
Sat 18 Nov: Ryutsu Keizai University 0-8 Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo
Sat 18 Nov: Sagawa Printing 0-2 Arte Takasaki

1 Honda FC 74 (+35)
2 Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo 68 (+52)
3 YKK AP 62 (+34)
4 Sagawa Kyubin Osaka 60 (+32)
5 Rosso Kumamoto 60 (+25)
6 Alo's Hokuriku 53 (+23)
7 Yokogawa Musashino 51 (+16)
8 Tochigi SC 50 (+12)
9 Sony Sendai 37 (-11)
10 JEF Club 32 (-13)
11 Arte Takasaki 32 (-27)
12 FC Kariya 31 (-15)
13 SC Tottori 29 (-1)
14 Sagawa Printing 29 (-24)
15 FC Ryukyu 27 (-18)
16 Ryutsu Keizai University 25 (-32)
17 Mitsubishi Mizushima 24 (-40)
18 Honda Lock 18 (-46)

18 Nov 06 - Kazuma Matsushita, match-winner for Alo’s Hokuriku

Kazuma Matsushita, match-winner for Alo’s Hokuriku
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Regional League Championship Winners' Play-off Previews
JNFN today continues its previews of the forthcoming Regional League Championship Winners' Play-offs with a look at Group C. This is to be staged in Kochi on the island of Shikoku and includes locals Kamatamare Sanuki, FC Mio-Biwako Kusatsu from Kansai and the Tokai league duo of Shizuoka FC and FC Gifu.

Formed in 2001, FC Gifu have incorporated within their structure teams from a range of educational institutions within their home prefecture, including the Gifu Teachers team that had previously participated at Regional level. 2004 saw the new club in Division 2 of the Tokai League and they were immediately competitive, missing out on promotion at the first attempt only on goal difference. Twelve months later and Gifu were again in a similar situation – but achieved a contrasting result, as a 7-0 win on the final day of the season enabled them to overtake Fuyo Club on goal difference and seal another promotion.

With financial backing, good organisation and a healthy local fanbase, this season the Greens were always likely to provide a stiff challenge to champions Shizuoka FC in Division 1 – and so it proved, as a squad stuffed with experienced ex-J-Leaguers claimed a draw in the pouring rain at Shizuoka on the opening day. Midway through the year, goals from Hiromi Kojima and former Oita Trinita defender Tetsuya Ito gave Gifu a 2-0 win over their deadly rivals to move them three points clear at the top of the table.

10 Nov 06 - FC Gifu’s ex-Nagoya Grampus 8 hero, Yasuyuki Moriyama

FC Gifu’s ex-Nagoya Grampus 8 hero, Yasuyuki Moriyama

This was a lead they never relinquished for the rest of a remarkable campaign and after having confirmed their title win at the start of October, coach Tetsuya Totsuka has snapped up a number of additional players on loan, including Gamba Osaka keeper Suguru Hino and Yu Hasegawa, a teenage striker from Kashiwa Reysol. They will undoubtedly go into the First Round of the play-offs having to cope with the pressure of being favourites, at the same time knowing that the previously dead and buried Shizuoka have wild-card entry.

For it was none other than Gifu’s fellow Tokai Leaguers who obtained a massive confidence boost from a run to the last two of the October Shakaijin tournament, during which they beat a pair of other sides who line up now in the Play-offs – including Group C rivals Kamatamare. Once in the final, Shizuoka had by far the better of the play against V Varen Nagasaki, only to be squeezed out 1-0. But the JFA’s decision to award an additional Play-off place to the Shakaijin runners-up has brought the possibility of salvation at the end of a terrible year for the club coached by Yasutoshi Miura, brother of Japanese footballing legend Kazu.

Just a few weeks previously, though, finishing second in the Tokai League behind Gifu had seemed merely to underline the extent to which they were on a downward spiral. Having won the title in 2002 and 2003, the ex-Yamakiya Club came desperately close to reaching the JFL, missing out in the Final Stage of the Play-offs by a matter of a few points on both occasions. But fans latterly were concerned that their club was becoming less competitive in the face of more progressive Regional League outfits elsewhere in the country, while they were stuck in the shadow of neighbours Jubilo Iwata, Shimizu S-Pulse and even Honda FC.

10 Nov 06 - Granted a reprieve by the JFA, Shizuoka FC

Granted a reprieve by the JFA, Shizuoka FC

Elimination from the Play-offs of 2005 by Banditonce Kobe was another huge disappointment for many supporters and led ultimately to the appointment of Miura, as Shizuoka sought to turn over a new leaf. Subsequent failure to beat Gifu in either of their league matches seemed to have cost them dear, until the JFA’s unexpected (although not entirely without precedent) change of policy handed them a lifeline.

The one addition to the Whites’ squad comes in the form of Consadole Sapporo 25-year-old striker Tomoaki Seino, something of a surprise in that Shizuoka were easily the highest-scoring side in Tokai during the league season. It is inevitably difficult to detect exactly how a side in their position will approach the Play-offs, but the fact that Gifu have failed to shake them off will surely offer Shizuoka a reason for some sort of optimism.

While the Tokai battle undoubtedly provides the focus of Group C – even of the whole of the First Round of the competition – exotically-named Kansai League runners-up FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu have been quietly preparing for their big opportunity to make the step up to the JFL: for potentially, they have one chance to achieve their ambition of bringing J-League football to their home prefecture of Shiga, near Kyoto.

Originally formed as a kids’ / youth team with the even more spectacular moniker of FC Mi-o Catfish Kusatsu, early in 2006 they bolted on a senior side by persuading the Sagawa Kyubin Kyoto company team to re-locate and be incorporated into their club structure. Sagawa Kyoto had first appeared in the Kansai League Division 2 in 2005, but immediately won promotion to the top tier before making their arrangement to hop into bed with FC Mi-o as a short-cut to the latter’s plans for future development.

10 Nov 06 - That can only be FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu

That can only be FC Mi-o Biwako Kusatsu

The bigger problem is that by the time next season begins, JFL powerhouses Sagawa Kyubin Osaka and Sagawa Kyubin Tokyo will have merged and themselves moved to Shiga, where the parent company’s main stadium is located. There is no suggestion yet that Sagawa United intend to aim for the J-League, although it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if such a change of policy were to occur; but whatever the truth, such a well-equipped incomer to the neighbourhood scarcely makes any easier FC Mi-o’s hopes of achieving a J2 place.

Given the possible narrowness of their window of opportunity, coach Kotaro Nakao has responded to the challenge of the Play-offs with preparations of remarkable thoroughness. His team has been constantly involved in a whole series of tough friendlies, boosted by the addition of four useful-looking players, including 21-year-old defender Noriaki Ishizawa from Nakao’s old club Vissel Kobe. They will begin the competition as outsiders, but should not be dismissed as incapable of an upset when up against ostensibly better-equipped teams.

The fourth team in Group C are Shikoku League champions Kamatamare Sanuki, winners of a hugely dramatic title race against reigning champions Nangoku Kochi thanks to a 3-3 draw on the final day of the season, when having lost would have conceded the first place which Kamatamare had held all year. Keen to follow near neighbours Ehime FC and Tokushima Vortis into the J-League, the club’s current name – which includes references to their home prefecture’s beautiful coastline and the culinary speciality of the area, a type of udon noodle – is actually their sixth.

Originally a high school Old Boys’ team based in Takamatsu, their most successful period in a reasonably extensive history was the 90s, when as Kagawa Shiun FC they won the Shikoku league twice and never finished out of the top three. But they never got passed the First Round of the Play-offs and a subsequent decline under the sponsorship of the Sunlife Corporation eventually brought about a re-invigoration of the club’s ambitions via the stewardship of local man Mikio Doi.

17 Nov 06 - Kamatamare Sanuki coach Mikio Doi leads the parade

Kamatamare Sanuki coach Mikio Doi leads the parade

Teams in this remote corner of the country nevertheless tend to find it difficult to attract talented players and Doi goes into the Play-offs knowing that, along with Norbritz Hokkaido, his charges are about the most likely to be heading for an early exit. Their stars are former university students such as strikers Hiroshi Kato and Eiji Morita, although also in the squad is the unlikely figure of Chinese midfielder Xu Xiao Fei, who moved to Shikoku from Consadole Sapporo. Up against teams such as Gifu, though, it is hard to envisage that they will do anything other than struggle.
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