SAITAMA – Kashiwa Reysol captured their first-ever J. League title just a year after winning the second division with a 3-1 victory over Urawa Reds on the final day of the season on Saturday.
Reysol went into the match at Saitama Stadium with a one-point lead over defending champions Nagoya Grampus and two in front of Gamba Osaka, knowing that a win would guarantee them the championship but that anything less could be fatal for their hopes of becoming the eighth champion club in J. League history.
Jorge Wagner and Wataru Hashimoto put the Chiba side firmly in the driver’s seat with two-first half goals, but with Grampus and Gamba both leading in their matches, Yosuke Kashiwagi clouded the issue with a reply for Urawa eight minutes after the break.
With the home side pushing hard for the equalizer that would turn Kashiwa’s title ambitions to dust, however, Akimi Barada struck to extend Reysol’s lead and secure an unlikely title triumph for a club that spent last season rubbing shoulders with the likes of FC Gifu and Thespa Kusatsu.
“Today was the last day of the season, but we have led for around 82 percent of the way and we knew that we were getting closer to winning the title,” said Reysol manager Nelsinho.
“Today we played like we have all season, with tight defense, fast breaks on the counterattack and players coming forward to burst into the spaces. The first half was excellent for us, but in the second half their creative players like Kashiwagi began to get more of the ball.
“But we came through after 90 minutes, and we were able to control the game as a whole. To win such a difficult league gives me real pride, and I have to thank and congratulate the players for all their hard work over this year and last.”
Kashiwa now joins a select band of teams worldwide — including England’s Ipswich Town in 1962 and Germany’s Kaiserslautern in 1998 — to have won the second — and first-division titles in successive seasons. Defender Naoya Kondo believes his side’s opening-day 3-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse laid the foundation for Saturday’s success.
“Last year we were in J2, and at the start of the season winning the title wasn’t something that looked possible,” he said. “But we had a good result on the opening day and then won a lot of games after that, and that gave us the confidence to believe we could go on to achieve something. We didn’t lose more than one game in a row, and that helped us a great deal.”
Kashiwa went for the jugular straight from the kickoff, with Leandro Domingues rasping a shot over the bar and Masato Kudo twice going close within the opening 10 minutes.
Wagner volleyed wide as Reysol ramped up the pressure even further, and in the 29th minute the dam finally broke. Kondo glanced a near-post header onward from a corner for Leandro to nudge against the post, but just when it looked like the chance had gone, Wagner followed up to ram the ball home with a deflection off Urawa goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato’s legs.
With the visitors hitting full stride, Hashimoto delivered the cushion they richly deserved with the second goal in the 38th minute. The 25-year-old reacted quickest to a loose ball by hooking in a clever overhead kick, upgrading Kashiwa from title favorites to champions-elect in the process.
Wagner lashed another long-range effort just wide as Kashiwa began the second half with the same hunger, but Kashiwagi changed the mood completely with a headed goal in the 53rd minute.
As the tension rose and Reds threatened to add another, however, Barada put the issue beyond doubt. Masakatsu Sawa won Kashiwa a corner, Urawa’s defense cleared the ball, and Barada followed up with a long-range strike that Kato allowed to dribble weakly through his grasp.
The final whistle sparked jubilant scenes from a sizable traveling support among the 54,441-strong crowd, but with the league title also bringing qualification for the Club World Cup later this month, there could be more to celebrate before the year is out.
“It was an amazing feeling when the final whistle blew,” said Kondo.
“We’ve calmed down a bit now, but now we’ve got the Club World Cup coming up and we’ll have to start thinking about that. We’ll enjoy this tonight, for sure, but tomorrow we’ll start preparing.”
Grampus beat Albirex Niigata 1-0 to finish as runnerup, while Gamba took third place with a 3-1 win over S-Pulse. Nagoya’s Josh Kennedy finished as the league’s top scorer with 19 goals.
Urawa successfully staved off relegation despite the defeat, with Ventforet Kofu’s minuscule chances of survival ended by a 3-1 defeat at Omiya Ardija that means the Yamanashi club will join Avispa Fukuoka and Montedio Yamagata in J2 next season. Sagan Tosu and Consadole Sapporo clinched their places in J1 alongside FC Tokyo, with Tokushima Vortis missing out.
Vegalta Sendai beat Vissel Kobe 2-0 to finish in fourth place, dropping Yokohama F. Marinos to fifth after a 1-1 draw with Kashima Antlers.
Elsewhere, Cerezo Osaka beat Avispa 7-1, Jubilo Iwata edged Kawasaki Frontale 2-1, and Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat last-place Montedio 3-1.
Stojkovic praises players
Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic showered his players with praise on Saturday, despite suffering the bitter disappointment of missing out on a second consecutive J League championship crown.
Keiji Tamada scored the only goal of the game with a superb 54th-minute free kick as Grampus beat Albirex Niigata 1-0 to register their first-ever league win at Big Swan.
It was all in vein, though, as last year’s second-division champions Kashiwa Reysol held on to win the title by one point after a 3-1 victory at Urawa Reds.
Nagoya’s misery was compounded as Kashiwa’s championship triumph booked them a spot in the lucrative Club World Cup beginning at Grampus’ home stadium next week.
“This is life. I think we gave our best and won our last six games and got a maximum 18 points. What else could we do but hope for a bad result for Reysol?” said Stojkovic, who guided Grampus to the title for the first time last year with three games to spare.
“It was very difficult to see the result in Urawa but the priority for us was to win here and congratulations for the excellent achievement by Kashiwa. Urawa are still sleeping, they don’t want to wake up.
“I am very proud of our players this year and I am happy with the reaction of our players. We faced a very difficult time at the beginning of the season but after that we showed the mentality and we showed our quality as a team,” the Serbian continued.
He added: “This year we lost only five games. This normally practically guarantees that you will become champions. Life continues.
“I am very proud of our work and results this year. We put Kashiwa under pressure until the last game.”
Stojkovic, however, admitted that dropping valuable points at home to Omiya Ardija and Urawa had not helped.