What began as a year of optimism and promise could not have turned out any worse for FC Tokyo.
The capital city side, which started 2010 with genuine aspirations of adding the J. League championship to the Nabsico Cup title it won last year, suffered the ignominy of relegation with a 2-0 loss to Kyoto Sanga on Saturday, watching helplessly as Vissel Kobe thrashed Urawa Reds 4-0 to seize the final survival spot and slam the door shut behind them.
If the perception of Tokyo was a side too good to go down, here was definitive evidence to the contrary. A squad packed with internationals, one of the biggest fan bases in the league and a bright manager could do nothing to prevent the free fall, and the club must now face up to life rubbing shoulders with Kataller Toyama and Fagiano Okayama instead of Nagoya Grampus and Kashima Antlers.
It is not as if Tokyo did not have its chances. A 2-1 lead that became a 3-2 defeat in the last four minutes of the Oct. 16 game against Vegalta Sendai is the most obvious example, but it was by no means the only occasion when Tokyo contrived to shoot itself in the foot.
Was a squad more at home in the rarefied atmosphere of the top half of the table uncomfortable mixing with the scrappers and bruisers at the bottom? The manner in which fellow strugglers Vissel and Omiya Ardija rolled up their sleeves when the chips were down suggests so.
But Tokyo’s lack of appetite for the fight could not mask other serious problems. Key players underperformed, new signings backfired, and injuries and the departure of Yuto Nagatomo to Italy all undermined the campaign.
But perhaps the biggest flaw was the misfiring front line of Sota Hirayama and Masashi Oguro. Neither player looked anywhere near the caliber required of a leading club, and of all the teams that survived only Montedio Yamagata scored less than Tokyo’s 36 goals.
Replacing manager Hiroshi Jofuku with Kiyoshi Okuma made little difference either, and Tokyo now finds itself at a crossroads. Does it allow players like Yasuyuki Konno and Shuichi Gonda to leave and rebuild along more modest lines? Or does it hold its ground and hope for a quick return?
It is a dilemma that no one saw coming at the start of the season.
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It was little surprise to see title-winning Nagoya Grampus boss Dragan Stojkovic named J. League manager of the year on Monday, but surely Cerezo Osaka’s Levir Culpi cannot have been far behind.
Cerezo clinched third place and a berth in next season’s Asian Champions League with a 6-2 win over Jubilo Iwata on Saturday, marking a hugely successful return to the top flight after securing promotion from J2 last year.
Not even the midseason departure of star player Shinji Kagawa could derail a side which seemed to get even better in his absence, and few could begrudge Culpi his reward after such an impressive season.
“This was a very emotional game and I’m so happy that we could get the ACL place,” the Brazilian said. “All week I’ve been looking at the players’ faces, and from that I knew we weren’t going to lose. I could see how the players felt for the whole week, and I really have to praise them for the spirit they showed on the pitch today.”
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Joining Cerezo in the Asian Champions League next season will be city rivals Gamba Osaka, who overcame a slow start to finish second to eventual champions Nagoya Grampus.
Saturday’s 3-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse means Akira Nishino’s side has finished in the top three every year but one since the single-league format was adopted in 2005, with an eighth-place finish in 2008 the sole exception.
But if the final league position suggests a year of smooth sailing, the reality was somewhat different. Gamba spent much of the first half of the campaign in the bottom half of the table, and only breached the top five after 22 rounds had been played.
“Gamba is a team that should always qualify for the ACL,” said Nishino. “Personally, I think anything less is unacceptable. Before the season started we were aiming for the title, but we fell short of that. Now I want to sit down with a cool head and analyze things thoroughly.”
Quotable: “We’ve been through some bad times together and some good times together.”
— Robson Ponte sums up his time at Urawa Reds after losing 4-0 at home to Vissel Kobe in his last league game for the club.