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Vissel avoids relegation by winning season finale

by Andrew Mckirdy

SAITAMA — Vissel Kobe secured their first-division survival and condemned FC Tokyo to an astonishing relegation with a 4-0 demolition of Urawa Reds on the final day of the J. League season on Saturday.

Vissel began the day a point behind Tokyo in the third and final relegation place, knowing only a win would be enough to stand a chance of staying up, and even then only if the capital-city side failed to beat second-from-bottom Kyoto Sanga.

But Takayuki Yoshida put Kobe on the way to fulfilling its end of the bargain with a well-taken 31st-minute opener at Saitama Stadium, and fortune spun further toward Masahiro Wada’s side when Kyoto’s Dutra put Tokyo on the back foot with a goal in the 34th minute at Nishikyogoku.

Yoshida and Park Kang Jo then added two more after the break as Vissel guaranteed their three points, and by the time Keijiro Ogawa added a fourth in injury time, Diego had scored Kyoto’s second to cap a 2-0 defeat for Tokyo and consign a side that began the season as a serious contender to win the league to ignominious relegation.

“Today we had to win first of all, and then see what would happen,” said Wada, who oversaw a seven-game unbeaten finish to the season after replacing Toshiya Miura in mid-September. “I still can’t really believe it. When I try to think back to the details of the game, all I can think of is that we managed to stay up.

“The players were fantastic and never gave up. They never stopped believing, and neither did the fans who came all the way to Saitama to support us. That belief is what kept us up.”

Gamba Osaka and Cerezo Osaka both edged out Kashima Antlers for the final two Asian Champions League places behind champions Nagoya Grampus. Kashima, which had designs on a fourth straight title less than a month ago, slipped to fourth after a 1-1 draw with Montedio Yamagata, while Gamba beat Shimizu S-Pulse 3-0 and Adriano scored four goals for Cerezo in a 6-2 rout of Jubilo Iwata.

But the biggest celebrations were at Saitama Stadium, where Hiroto Mogi carved open Urawa’s defense to release Yoshida for Vissel’s opener, before the veteran notched his second from the penalty spot after a foul on Kunie Kitamoto.

“We knew we would be under pressure coming here to play Urawa in the last game of the season, and the first goal was really important,” said Wada. “After that we were able to calm down and play our football, and we went on to give an excellent performance.”

With the second goal went Urawa’s last semblance of a challenge, and Park drove the point home with Vissel’s third in the 59th minute. Popo wriggled into space and delivered a sumptuous ball past the home side’s non-existent defense, and the South Korean could hardly miss with the goal at his mercy.

Vissel’s fourth sent the travelling fans into delirium with Tokyo’s relegation creeping seconds toward confirmation, but for Wada the battle was won and lost when the capital team threw away a 1-0 lead to draw with Montedio Yamagata the previous week.

“The miracle wasn’t today, but in the last round of games,” he said. “We beat S-Pulse but it looked like it wouldn’t mean anything until Yamagata scored an equalizer against Tokyo. That kept us in with a chance, and today we felt that the team with momentum would win. That was us.”

Nagoya’s Josh Kennedy and Jubilo’s Ryoichi Maeda shared the league’s top scorer award with 17 goals each.