Kashima Antlers may be the Meiji Yasuda J1 League leaders, but a heavy loss for René Weiler’s men last weekend in Hiroshima has them in desperate need of a bounce-back performance in Matchweek 13.
That’s no small task with a visit from Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo on tap - a team who have not allowed a goal in their current five-match unbeaten run.
Consadole have surged into the top half of the table, led by a three-man backline that is clicking on all cylinders and that uses energetic wingbacks to fold out into a back five when necessary. Manager Mihailo Petrović has seemingly struck gold with this defensive construction that allows his team to get numbers behind the ball, take away the half-spaces that some teams try to exploit, and spur a dynamic attack on the counter.
There is no dominant goal scorer in Sapporo, with only two players in the team even scoring twice on the season, but eight different players have hit the net - a tally that includes forwards, midfielders, wingbacks and even centerbacks.
Dangerous all over the pitch and hard to break through in the back, Consadole pose a particularly difficult challenge for Kashima, but the hosts are top of the table and title contenders for a reason.
The biggest reason of them all is a show-stopping strikeforce led by the dynamic duo of Ayase Ueda and Yuma Suzuki. The 23-year-old Ueda is having a breakout campaign with seven goals to his name so far, while Yuma Suzuki has four of his own and a league-leading four assists to go along with them.
Simply put, this weekend pits a league-leading attacking duo against a defense that has been faultless for five matches on the bounce. Will the hosts break through and extend their league at the top of the table in Matchweek 13? Or can Consadole extend their unbeaten streak to six games?
The answer could determine the top of the table - and the direction of the title race.