Hirofumi Watanabe couldn’t have scored his first goal of the season at a better time as the injury replacement was the match-winner of the Emperor’s Cup final in Kashiwa Reysol’s 1-0 victory over Gamba Osaka on Tuesday.
Before a sellout crowd of 46,480 on New Year’s Day at the National Stadium, the first-half header from Watanabe gave Kashiwa their first Emperor’s Cup crown since the launch of the J-League in 1993.
The 25-year-old Watanabe was filling in for center-half Naoya Kondo, who was hurt in the 1-0 semifinal win over Yokohama F Marinos on Saturday.
“There were times when I couldn’t play but I’m glad I stuck it out,” Watanabe said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time and I just stuck my head out.”
With the win, 2011 J1 champions Reysol qualified for the 2013 Asian Champions League, ending Gamba’s run of consecutive appearances in the continental championship at five years.
“I arrived at Kashiwa in 2009 but I couldn’t save the club from relegation,” Nelsinho said. “We hit rock bottom for better or worse, and that’s when I tried to rally everyone around one concept — winning. Now, everyone who works for the club is committed to succeeding.”
“Qualifying for the ACL was a big goal for us. It really is an important competition.”
Following the match, Gamba announced the appointment of Kenta Hasegawa as manager for the 2013 season.
Hasegawa takes over for Masanobu Matsunami, who unseated Jose Carlos Serrao on March 26 but failed to keep the team in the top flight after finishing 17th.
Gamba had owned the matchup in previous Emperor’s Cups, winning all four meetings until Tuesday.
Watanabe was playing in his eighth game of the season in all competitions and emerged as the unlikely hero by breaking the deadlock in the 35th minute.
After Yohei Takeda kept out a volley by Masakatsu Sawa from 20 meters, Jorge Wagner swung in a left-wing corner for the near post. Watanabe soared over the defense, nodding past the flailing arms of Takeda who had little time to react.
Gamba, who beat Nabisco Cup champions Kashima Antlers to reach the final, were stifled by the Kashiwa defense which allowed few shots on target.
Takahiro Futagawa came closest for Gamba in the 27th minute during a penalty-box scramble, but was foiled by Reysol custodian Takanori Sugeno.
Nelsinho said the turning point in the game was in the 32nd minute, when he took off midfielder Koki Mizuno — who was not extended for the new season — for forward Junya Tanaka to put more pressure on Gamba from the front.
“A cup final is always difficult and you never know what can happen,” Nelsinho said. “I needed to make a change, so I played the substitution for Junya even though Koki was doing fine in the hole. Sometimes, things don’t work out as well as you’d like them to.”
“After that, I thought we reacted to Gamba with patience and confidence.”
Kashiwa will open the 2013 campaign against J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup on Feb. 23.