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Sanfrecce defend J. League crown

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Defending J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima retained their title as Yokohama F. Marinos suffered a final-day meltdown with a 1-0 loss to Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday.

Marinos, who began the day two points clear at the top of the table, needed a win to guarantee themselves a first championship since 2004, but a 54th-minute goal from Frontale forward Renato tore up the script at Todoroki Stadium.

Sanfrecce also needed to beat Kashima Antlers away from home to stand any chance of claiming the title, and goals either side of halftime from Naoki Ishihara kept up their end of the bargain with a 2-0 victory over a Kashima side that was reduced to 10 men when striker Yuya Osako was sent off on the stroke of halftime.

“I can’t believe it,” said Sanfrecce striker Hisato Sato. “I thought we had let the title slip through our fingers, but now it has come back to us. We’ve been fighting hard these last two games with only a small chance of winning the title.

“We just wanted to win today and make sure that we finished the season no lower than second. This is for the fans who came all the way to Kashima to support us.”

Sanfrecce became the first team to successfully defend its J. League title since Kashima Antlers in 2009, while Marinos were left with nothing but regrets after squandering a four-point lead with two games left of the season, including a 2-0 defeat at home to Albirex Niigata last weekend.

“This is so disappointing,” said Marinos manager Yasuhiro Higuchi. “We began the season aiming for the title and picked up points to get ourselves into a good position. It’s very frustrating that it has escaped us.

“We still have the Emperor’s Cup to play for and we have to start looking forward straight away, starting tomorrow. We have to put this pain to good use. We have to become stronger because of this experience.”

Frontale booked themselves a spot in next season’s Asian Champions League with the win, finishing the season in third place to join Sanfrecce, Marinos and the winner of the Jan. 1 Emperor’s Cup final.

“Qualifying for the ACL was the big target for us,” said Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama. “For a team that was at one point bottom of the table, the fact that we have got here is evidence of how much the players have improved.”

Frontale striker Yoshito Okubo finished the season as top scorer with 26 goals, the highest number since Urawa’s Washington and Gamba Osaka’s Magno Alves reached the same number in 2006.

Renato twice went close to opening the scoring against Marinos, first hitting the angle of post and crossbar with a 20th-minute free kick before pulling a shot just wide moments later.

Kengo Nakamura also tried his luck as Frontale set up camp in the visitors’ half, and with Ishihara giving Sanfrecce the lead against Antlers in the 35th minute, suddenly the pressure was all on Yokohama.

Marinos knew that one goal would be enough to put them back in the driving seat, however, and Manabu Saito narrowly failed to connect as a cross flashed past his head in the 38th minute.

But nine minutes into the second half, the unthinkable happened for Marinos. Okubo hit a wickedly swerving shot from outside the box that Yokohama goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto punched only as far as Ryota Oshima, who then turned the ball inside for Renato to crash home.

Shunsuke Nakamura tested Kawasaki goalkeeper Yohei Nishibe with a free kick from range as Marinos desperately tried to find a way back, before Marquinhos crashed a shot into the side netting with six minutes to go.

A terrible challenge on Kyohei Noborizato then earned Yokohama’s Yuzo Kobayashi a booking as frustration began to boil over for the visitors, and injury-time heroics from Nishibe hurt Marinos further as Frontale saw out the win to spark Sanfrecce’s celebrations in Kashima.

“We found out what the score was in the Frontale-Marinos game at halftime,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu. “At that point we were leading, but you have to think about your own game first.

“We never lost the feeling in our game, and the players kept running right until the end. I can’t remember at what point after the game we were told that it had been confirmed we were champions.”

In other notable games, Cerezo Osaka beat Urawa Reds 5-2 to finish in fourth place, knocking Reds down to sixth, one place behind Kashima, while Dragan Stojkovic’s six-year reign as Nagoya Grampus ended with a 2-0 defeat to Albirex Niigata.