J. League supporters are used to seeing the title race go down to the wire and this year is unlikely to be any different.

By Matthew Hernon

Just three points separate Yokohama F. Marinos, Urawa Reds and Sanfrecce Hiroshima as we head in to the final four games of what has already been an enthralling campaign. It’s squeaky bum time at the top, but if Marinos striker Marquinhos is feeling the pressure, he certainly didn’t show as he sat down with the Weekender to discuss what is set to be an exciting climax to the 2013 season.

“It is so close up there, every game is like a play-off now,” he tells us. “Of course there are some nerves, but I think that is something we enjoy and thrive on. On top of that we have players who have been in this situation before and won titles such as myself, (Shunsuke) Nakamura, (Yuji) Nakazawa, (Yuzo) Kurihara and Dutra.”

When Marinos were flying high at the start of the season many saw it as a false dawn. The aforementioned players clearly had the quality and experience to help the club challenge for honors, but ultimately they would be too old to last the distance. That is what the critics believed and have subsequently been waiting for their slide, yet as we enter this crucial stage Yasuhiro Higuchi’s men remain top of the pile.

On Sunday a trademark Nakamura free-kick earned Marinos a tight win over Oita Trinita, pushing the Yokohama club that much closer to the prize that has eluded them for nine years. Marquinhos, who won the championship three times with Kashima Antlers and once while on loan at Marinos, believes both the club’s and his own form has vastly improved over the past year.

“We are a more settled team now,” he says. “Our combination play is much better and we are more accustomed to each others games, in general our level of performance has gone up dramatically. On a personal note, it has been my best season since 2008 (when he finished as top scorer and was voted as the league’s most valuable player). Things went pretty well in 2012, but I have managed to kick on even further this year.”

“It is so close up there, every game is like a play-off now … Of course there are some nerves, but I think that is something we enjoy and thrive on.”

They say any team is only as good as their forwards and in Marquinhos, Marinos have one of the best in the league. Vegalta Sendai aside (where he stayed for just one game following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011), he has scored goals wherever he has played in Japan and at 37 he still clearly knows where the net is, having already bagged 16 during this campaign.

While Marquinhos’s importance to the side cannot be understated, the key member of the Marinos starting eleven is undoubtedly club captain Shunsuke Nakamura. The former Reggina, Celtic and Espanyol man, who has an asteroid (29986 Shunsuke) named after him, has been in inspired form, enjoying his best season since returning to Yokohama in 2010.

“He is such an intelligent footballer,” says Marquinhos. “He has great awareness of what is around him, he knows when to shoot, when to pass and is so composed on the ball; he is a player who can produce something out of nothing. Watching him in training, he is an inspiration . . . it is an honour to play in the same team as him.”

Another player Marquinhos has been impressed by is Manabu Saito, one of the younger players in the squad who marked his debut for the national team with a spectacular goal against Australia. Tipped to make a move to Europe in the near future, his influence on the Marinos side has been steadily growing over the past few months.

“He is developing every day,” the Brazilian tells us. “After playing for the Marinos youth team he was sent out on loan to Ehime FC. You could tell he learned a lot there because when he returned he was a completely different player. He is far more confident now, dribbling, feinting, and shooting when he has the opportunity. It is great to see and I think as he gains more experience his importance to the side will grow even further.”

Saito’s energy, enthusiasm and terrific vision should prove vital as the season enters its final stretch. It is also a time for calm heads with both Urawa and last year’s champions Sanfrecce ready to pounce if Marinos slip up. It is set to be an unpredictable, tense and very thrilling finale, the kind we have come to expect in the J. League over the past decade or so. It makes the farcical decision to return to a two-stage season in 2015 all the more preposterous.

Image: © Y.F.M.