NARUTO, TOKUSHIMA PREF. - Gamba Osaka captured their second J. League championship despite a 0-0 draw at relegated Tokushima Vortis, thanks to another late collapse from Urawa Reds, who were beaten 2-1 at home by Nagoya Grampus on Saturday.
The 2014 J. League season drew to a close as Gamba, who won their first league crown since 2005, finished with 63 points, one point ahead of Urawa. Kashima Antlers, the only other team with a chance at the title, lost 1-0 at home to Sagan Tosu and ended up third with 60 points.
Gamba, who were in the relegation zone before the World Cup break and out of first place by as much as 14 points, became only the second club after Kashiwa Reysol in 2011 to win J1 in their first year of promotion.
Kenta Hasegawa’s men can join Kashima as the only two teams to complete the treble if they beat J2’s Montedio Yamagata in the Emperor’s Cup final on Dec. 13.
“First, we want to celebrate winning the league this weekend but I hope we don’t get carried away and wreck ourselves,” Gamba captain Yasuhito Endo said. “Hopefully we can produce our best performance next time out and win the treble no matter what.”
The afternoon looked bleak for Gamba at one point as Reds went up in the second minute through Tomoaki Makino at Saitama Stadium.
Gamba, knowing full well the championship was theirs to lose, started out uptight and nervous against the worst team in the league who had just one point from their last 12 games and never won at home all season.
A barren first half had Gamba under immense pressure on the other side of halftime and midfielder Yasuyuki Konno admitted his team was starting to sweat it.
“We were really panicking,” the Japanese international said. “We tried luring them out by moving the ball around but they wouldn’t take the bait. Even when they went forward, everyone was getting back.
“If they had played like that all year, they wouldn’t have gone down.”
But as Gamba fought through the stalemate, Yusuke Muta equalized for Grampus in the 72nd minute and Kensuke Nagai made it 2-1 for Nagoya in the 89th minute. With Kashima also behind, that meant a draw was going to be good enough for Gamba so Hasegawa told his troops to rein themselves in for the four minutes of stoppage time.
“I told (defender Daiki) Niwa at injury time that both Kashima and Reds were down and to not risk it,” Hasegawa said. “I didn’t want us to get caught out trying to win it when we didn’t need to. It would have been nice to have won the title with a victory today. But I chose to be realistic.”
“The message was to not force it. I mean, look at what happened to Urawa last weekend in the 94th minute,” Konno said, referring to Reds’ 1-1 away draw to Tosu who equalized deep in injury time. “You just never know what can happen in this game.”
Before the World Cup year started, Gamba hadn’t won a major trophy of any kind in five years. J. League chairman Mitsuru Murai praised the club for turning its season around and pinned Japan’s Asian Champions League hopes next year on the former continental champions.
“In the 14 matches leading up to the FIFA World Cup break, Gamba Osaka had just four wins and were in 16th, a very difficult start for anyone,” Murai said. “But they were incredible during the last 20 games, winning 15 to capture J1 in impressive fashion.
“We’re counting on them to build on the success in the J. League and recapture the ACL.”
At the other end of the table, Omiya Ardija became the third and last team to suffer the drop despite beating relegated Cerezo Osaka 2-0 at home, after 15th-place S-Pulse held on for a 0-0 draw with Ventforet Kofu in Shimizu.
Kawasaki Frontale’s Yoshito Okubo all but won the golden boot for the second straight year, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory at Vissel Kobe. Champions the last two seasons, Sanfrecce Hiroshima defeated Vegalta Sendai 2-0 at home, while FC Tokyo and Yokohama F. Marinos fought to a 1-1 draw at Ajinomoto.
The game between Albirex and Kashiwa Reysol in Niigata was postponed due to heavy snow. A replacement date has yet to be decided.