/

Reds complete epic collapse on final day

by James Mulligan

YOKOHAMA — Capitulation complete. Urawa Reds’ wretched run of form at the tail end of the season reached its nadir on Saturday as the Saitama giants lost 1-0 to already-relegated Yokohama FC on the final day of the season to hand the J. League title to Kashima Antlers.

News photoReds’ Yuki Abe (right) and Washington mourn while going back to the locker room after Urawa failed to
clinch the J. League championship at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama on Saturday.
KYODO PHOTO

Yokohama FC picked a heck of a time to win their first league match since May 26 — only the fourth in an awful season — but it meant the Antlers stole the title from the defending champions after winning 3-0 at home to Shimizu S-Pulse. Kashima finished on 72 points, Reds on 70.

Shingo Nejime scored the lone goal in the first half at Nissan Stadium. Veteran Kazuyoshi Miura was magnificent throughout for Yokohama, as was Brazilian Katatau until his substitution around the hour mark. The Reds looked tired and ordinary throughout, a team burdened by their own successes.

“We’ve experienced a huge disappointment today,” Urawa coach Holger Osieck said. “We did everything to get back in the game in the second half. This past month has been extremely tiring physically and mentally.

“I’ve kept on saying it was not tiring, but it was. I think the victory in the AFC Champions League made the players lose their high level of concentration they maintained all season.”

A year ago this weekend, the Reds beat Gamba Osaka on the final day to clinch their first-ever J. League title, and it was the Reds’ slovenly finish to this season — three draws and a defeat before Saturday — that set them up for this most dramatic of falls.

Indeed, the title really should have been done and dusted a good while ago — the Reds were 10 points clear of Kashima with five games remaining — but Urawa’s faltering form was exacerbated by its busy schedule that included their AFC Champions League victory, while Antlers were left to concentrate on putting together a run of eight straight victories.

If there was one thing the Reds didn’t want to be fiddling about with before such a momentous match was a midweek Emperor’s Cup match against Ehime FC, but that’s what they were faced with at Komaba Stadium on Wednesday and a shock 2-0 defeat in a competition they were defending didn’t bode well.

Saturday afternoon’s proceedings got off to a bizarre beginning when the teams strode onto the pitch to the accompaniment of David Bowie’s “Starman.”

It turned out to be an afternoon of oddity.

A lad insane was Nejime, with joy that is, when he side-footed home the opener on 18 minutes.

But he had Miura to thank after the 40-year-old skipped around Yuki Abe on the left and delivered a perfect pass into the midfielder’s path.

The goal was hardly against the run of play. Aside from a long-range Robson Ponte effort early on, the Reds hadn’t really done much of note.

The hosts, on the other hand, were prodding and probing the Urawa backline. Midfielder Katatau went close around the half-hour mark with a lovely left-foot dipper that ‘keeper Ryota Tsuzki tipped over.

The rat-tat-tat against the Urawa defense continued and the next to go close was Miura from close range, but this time the veteran forward dithered and couldn’t get the ball out of his feet as an open goal presented itself.

Osieck knew he had to shake things up at halftime, especially with Antlers leading 1-0 against Shimizu S-Pulse, and the German swapped defender Nene for sparkplug striker Tatsuya Tanaka.

The introduction of Tanaka paid almost immediate dividends when Yuichiro Nagai crashed in a left-foot shot that ‘keeper Takanori Sugeno could only parry into the path of the little forward, but he fluffed his shot. But if the Reds thought it would be all one-way traffic in the second half, Miura and Katatau thought otherwise. They linked up beautifully on the left and the young Brazilian weaved inside before shooting, only to be denied by the legs of Tsuzuki.

Osieck then introduced Shinji Ono, hoping his flair could open up the now 10-man deep Yokohama defense, as Sugeno continued to comfortably claim any deep ball into the Yokohama box.

It was to no avail. Indeed, substitute Cho Young Cheol broke clear late to have the best chance of the second half but scuffed his shot wide.

It didn’t matter, though. Yokohama had won, and more importantly so had the Antlers, meaning the Reds had let the title slip out of their hands at the final hurdle.