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Sanfrecce, Marinos book places in Emperor’s Cup final

Kyodo

Japan international Shusaku Nishikawa produced three clutch saves in the shootout as J. League champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima reached the Emperor’s Cup final with a 5-4 victory on penalties over FC Tokyo on Sunday.

With Sanfrecce down 3-1 in the shootout following a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes, Nishikawa — who also converted his team’s fourth penalty — stopped Hirotaka Mita, Ariajasuru Hasegawa and Naohiro Ishikawa before Gakuto Notsuda hit the winning spot kick for Hajime Moriyasu’s men.

Hiroshima stayed on course for the double and as fate would have it, will face league runnerup Yokohama F. Marinos in the New Year’s Day classic, which will be held at the National Stadium for the last time before the ground undergoes renovation for the 2020 Olympics.

In the day’s first semifinal, Marinos moved within a win of their first silverware in nine years after advancing with a 2-0 home win over Sagan Tosu.

“I’m really glad we won,” Nishikawa said. “My timing was a little off initially, but eventually I found my groove. The boys played their hearts out for 120 minutes and I wanted to do my part.

“It was my time to step up. After the first one I stopped, I wasn’t sure where things were headed. But after three, I was convinced we were going to win.”

“I really want to win with the group we’ve got,” said the national team backup, who has been linked with an offseason move to Urawa Reds. “The final is something I’ve been watching on television in the past. But now I have an opportunity to be in it. I’m so excited.”

Hiroshima played the better soccer, trying to actually make a game out of the contest, but Tokyo relegated it to a chess match for most of the first 90 minutes.

It took an hour before either side went close, Sanfrecce playmaker Yojiro Takahagi bringing the game out of a slumber with a free kick for the top corner that a fully extended Hitoshi Shiota barely kept out.

Tokyo’s first chance arrived four minutes later, but only from a mistake by Hiroshima’s Japan international Toshihiro Aoyama, who misplayed a long ball that set up Kazuma Watanabe for a one-on-one with Nishikawa.

Watanabe, though, was foiled by Nishikawa, who got down for the save by the left-hand post in what proved to be Tokyo’s only legitimate opportunity during regulation.

Tokyo, which finished eighth in the league this season, constantly had most of its men behind the ball, seeming perfectly content with the match heading into extra time.

Nishikawa parried away Ishikawa’s stinging effort after 119 minutes, the lone piece of action during the additional 30 minutes before the Hiroshima custodian came to the rescue in the shootout.

Tokyo coach Ranko Popovic managed his last game for the club. He is reportedly bound for Cerezo Osaka, who qualified for the Asian Champions League thanks to Sunday’s results.

The J. League’s top three teams and the Emperor’s Cup winners qualify for the ACL from Japan. But with Hiroshima and Marinos in the final, the last ticket went to Cerezo, who finished fourth in the league.

“I was expecting to spend New Year’s Day at this stadium,” Popovic said. “But we didn’t take our chances and gave them a window to get back into the game.”

At Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium, late goals from J. League Player of the Year Shunsuke Nakamura and Shingo Hyodo sent Marinos into their first final in 21 years.

Nakamura doubled Marinos’ lead in the 94th minute. Hyodo had broken the deadlock eight minutes earlier for Marinos, who were in the last four for the third straight year.

Marinos have not won a title of any kind since capturing the league championship in 2004. They lost this season’s title race on the final weekend, when Sanfrecce overtook them by a point to win for the second straight year.