Match of the Week, Matchweek 9: Kashiwa, Kyoto in battle of upstarts

Match of the Week, Matchweek 9: Kashiwa, Kyoto in battle of upstarts

No two teams in the Meiji Yasuda J1 League have been more surprising than Kashiwa Reysol and Kyoto Sanga this season. Now, the two upstarts who have taken the league by storm meet at SANKYO FRONTIER Kashiwa Stadium.

Reysol were only promoted to the top flight two years ago and were seemingly in regression heading into this season. They finished seventh in their first season back up in 2020 but dropped to 15th in 2021. That is rarely how a championship contender is made, but after eight weeks Reysol are unquestionably in the title race, sitting second in the league in points-per-game.

Led by an excellent defense that has conceded a league-best four goals all season, Reysol have raced up the table and demonstrated they are a well-organized, clinical team that is exceptionally difficult to play.

Kyoto Sanga were promoted from the Meiji Yasuda J2 League last season and billed as relegation battlers heading into 2022. Through the first eight matches of the campaign, though, they've been anything but cellar dwellers, sitting in seventh place and with just two losses across their 11 matches in all competitions. It’s been a terrific return to the top flight for Sanga and it’s been led by Peter Utaka, the 38-year-old striker whose six goals lead J1.

Will Utaka be able to keep that run of form going against Reysol’s defense?

Kashiwa have excelled at collapsing space and shutting down teams in transition - something that should bode well for them against Utaka, who has done a lot of his damage when Kyoto capitalize on turnovers and spring attacks. But Utaka also manages to ghost away from defenders in tight spaces with his excellent movement and find the small gaps necessary to get on a ball in dangerous areas and finish. That is an area that could beat even an excellent back line like Reysol’s if they switch off for even a moment.

It will be a compelling battle on Matchweek 9 between two teams whose mostly-rotated squads split points in the J.League YBC Levain Cup in February. Since then, both have gone on to upend preseason expectations with terrific runs in the league — and this weekend presents yet another opportunity to continue that form and increase momentum.