Kevin Muscat’s pursuit of back-to-back J1 League titles with Yokohama F. Marinos has hit a hurdle, falling two points in arrears of Vissel Kobe with eight matches to play after a 2-0 loss to lowly Kashiwa Reysol.

While Marinos may be relieved by the slide of ninth-placed Kawasaki Frontale, with who they’ve split the past seven titles (Frontale 5-2), they find themselves engaged in a new battle with Kobe, owned by technology-conglomerate Rakuten.

Kobe are seeking a maiden Japanese title in a league that historically features more contenders than most around the world; as The Asian Game’s Scott McIntyre told Box2Box, it would once again be folly this season to consider it just a race in two.

‘It’s been a good season, it’s been competitive, and it looked for a long time that it might be just Kobe – who are backed by a fairly wealthy individual and are finally coming good – and Marinos. It was neck and neck for a long while, still is.

‘But the pack below them, you could push it all the way down to Hiroshima in seventh. We have seen a bit of a wobble at Yokohama, and Musky said after the game that they need to get back their form from the start of the summer. A few injuries have probably hurt them at the wrong time.’

Chief among the challengers outside the top two are Nagoya Grampus, who remain steeled by the goalkeeping of Mitch Langerak. Now into his sixth season and nearing 200 league appearances, Langerak has broken his own records for clean sheets and was selected in the J1 League team of the season in 2021.

The glaring omission from his CV is a League title, something the club achieved on the sole occasion of 2010. Sitting six points adrift of the lead, they face Kobe in the penultimate round on November 25th.

‘Mitch is unbelievable. In my opinion he’s the best keeper in the J1 League, probably the best keeper in Asia, and has been at that level for four-to-five years. He’s incredibly consistent month to month, season to season, still dedicated to his craft and keeps himself in very good condition off the pitch.

‘To come here and do so well, particularly as a keeper not operating in your native language, it’s very important to have that connection with teammates and he’s figured it out. I think he’s been one of the best Australian imports into a league in terms of consistency and duration. The League will go down to the wire and Urawa will be right in with a shot.’

Ever-present among the ranks of Australians in Japan remains Peter Cklamovski, who is twelve matches into his tenure as manager of FC Tokyo, his third senior position in the country after time with Shimizu S Pulse & Montedio Yamagata.

Four wins from nine league matches under Cklamovski in addition to the five under previous manager Albert Puig has them sitting firmly mid-table in tenth, and McIntyre feels chances of driving further up the table this season may be unreasonable.

‘Taking over mid-season is always difficult. The coach he took over from, they’re not a million miles from each other in terms of style but the squad, I’m not sure that was built necessarily for him, but maybe for the coaches before that.

‘They don’t really have ball-playing centre-halfs, mobile midfielders. I think Pete knew it was going to be about changing the mentality, working on things like shape without the ball, and then look to really recast that squad next year with players that fit the way he wants to play.’