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Sanfrecce showed mettle with late charge to claim second straight title

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

If Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s debut title win last season was greeted with respectful but underwhelming applause, there can be no doubting their credentials now that they have successfully defended their crown.

Sanfrecce beat Kashima Antlers 2-0 on Saturday to become the first team to win back-to-back J. League titles since 2009, profiting from a late meltdown from front-runners Yokohama F. Marinos to overcome a five-point deficit with two games remaining.

Questions must be asked of Yokohama’s mentality having thrown away such a commanding position, but Hiroshima can hardly be labeled champions-by-default having challenged for the title for most of the season.

Hajime Moriyasu’s men went into the campaign looking like they might struggle to match the previous year’s heroics, and a slow start amid Asian Champions League responsibilities and the extra pressure of being champions suggested a repeat performance was unlikely.

But Sanfrecce regained their composure in time to head into the summer international break in a strong position, and the experience gained from last year’s championship run became more and more important as the season went on.

“Last year when we played Shimizu S-Pulse at home, they went down to 10 men but then came from behind to beat us,” said goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa after Saturday’s win over Antlers, who had striker Yuya Osako sent off in first-half injury time.

“After that we talked about making good use of that experience, and you could see that we did that today. Even when we couldn’t score, we continued to pass the ball around. We were all on the same page, and there was no panic in our play.”

Moriyasu was helped by losing only one player — Ryota Moriwaki, who joined Urawa Reds — from his 2012 title-winning squad, and that collective strength manifested itself in a way that Marinos could only dream of when it came to the crunch.

“In order to win the title we absolutely had to win this game,” Moriyasu said of Saturday’s season finale. “It was a pressure game but the players prepared well and embraced the challenge.

“You can talk about the style of your football, but to play in a mentally demanding game like this you have to be persistent in your desire to win.”

Two championship trophies are proof that Sanfrecce have that quality in spades.

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Yoshito Okubo set himself the target of 15 goals for the season when he sat down with The Japan Times shortly after his move to Kawasaki Frontale in February, but the feisty striker went on to surpass that and then some.

Okubo walked away with the Golden Boot after scoring 26 goals — a tally unrivaled by anyone since 2006 — for his new club, and the 31-year-old was in no mood to stop there after helping Frontale claim a third-place finish with a 1-0 win over F. Marinos on Saturday.

“Nothing about me has changed,” said Okubo, whose previous season best in the top flight was 16 goals. “But I feel that if I can do this in my first year here, next year I can do even better.

“Twenty-six goals is a high hurdle to clear, but being able to set that as my target is great and I’m going to enjoy trying. I feel that finally this season I was able to show what I could do.”

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FC Tokyo striker Lucas couldn’t have wished for a better end to his career, scoring the opener in Tokyo’s 2-0 win over Vegalta Sendai on Saturday in front of an adoring Ajinomoto Stadium crowd.

The 34-year-old Brazilian’s three goals over two legs may have helped Gamba Osaka beat Adelaide United in the 2008 Asian Champions League final, but it is in Tokyo where he will be most fondly remembered having had two spells with the capital city club spanning seven years.

“I haven’t played in a game as perfect as this,” said Lucas, who joined Tokyo in 2004 and returned from a three-year stint at Gamba in 2011. “It was the last game at Ajinomoto Stadium and the last game of the season, and although winning was the top priority, the fact that I also scored made it perfect.

“I came one goal short of scoring 100 goals in J1 and J2 combined, but I like the number nine so I was aiming to finish with 99 anyway.”

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Quotable: “I’m very happy that we have become Shikoku’s first J1 team.”

— Tokushima Vortis midfielder Daisuke Saito revels in local pride after beating Kyoto Sanga 2-0 in Sunday’s promotion playoff final at National Stadium.