Sanfrecce Hiroshima may have had to wait until the J. League’s 20th season before winning their first piece of silverware, but after clinching the championship with a resounding win in front of a home crowd on Saturday, the achievement will taste all the sweeter.
Sanfrecce beat Cerezo Osaka 4-1 to capture the title on the penultimate weekend of the season while nearest rival Vegalta Sendai lost to Albirex Niigata, bringing a premature end to a vibrant championship race that looked like it would go down to the wire once again. Vegalta must live with the knowledge that they took only three points from four critical games with a first-ever title within touching distance, but Sanfrecce’s dismantling of Cerezo was typical of their season and a fitting way to end the wait for one of the league’s original 10 members.
Central to Hiroshima’s triumph was striker Hisato Sato, the league’s top scorer and the overwhelming candidate to win the player of the year award next Monday. The 30-year-old’s speed, agility and poacher’s instinct may not fit national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s profile of a modern target man, but Sato’s 22 goals have suited club manager Hajime Moriyasu just fine and set the example for teammates Yojiro Takahagi, Toshihiro Aoyama and Koji and Kazuyuki Morisaki to follow.
Moriyasu has also made a name for himself by winning the league in his first season as manager, but the former Sanfrecce midfielder was quick to pay tribute to predecessor Mihailo Petrovic for laying the foundations over his 5½ years in charge. Under the circumstances it is easy to view Moriyasu as the latecomer piggy-backing on the hard work of others, but in reality the 44-year-old gave the team more balance with a subtle shift toward defense and fostered a mental toughness that provided the edge with so many contenders vying for the title.
Sanfrecce’s achievement is all the more impressive given the level of expectation at the start of the season, with the club coming off the back of consecutive seventh-place finishes and bidding farewell to Petrovic and Southampton-bound striker Tadanari Lee over the winter. Departures have been steady with Yuichi Komano, Yosuke Kashiwagi and Tomoaki Makino all leaving the club in recent years, but with teams all over the J. League losing talent to Europe at an ever-increasing rate, the leveled playing field has allowed smaller teams such as Sanfrecce and Vegalta the chance to challenge for honors.
If this year’s championship has suffered a slight overall dip in quality as a result, however, that is not to say Sanfrecce did not deserve their title. Moriyasu’s side has not fallen out of the top two since the 12th round of games, and although Vegalta spent more time in first place, the newly crowned champions held their nerve when it mattered most.
Now Sanfrecce can turn their thoughts toward the Club World Cup, beginning with the opening game against New Zealand’s Auckland City in Yokohama next Thursday. Momentum, home support and a lack of travel fatigue will all work in their favor, and if Moriyasu can harness the same spirit that took Kashiwa Reysol all the way to the semifinals last year, a date with Brazil’s Corinthians will be the reward.
Having spent the previous 19 years with nothing to show for their efforts, Sanfrecce will be determined to make the most of their time in the spotlight.
If next season’s competition is as evenly matched as this, who knows when they will come out on top again?