FC Tokyo crashed out of J. League title contention after a 0-0 home draw with Sagan Tosu on Sunday that put defending champions Gamba Osaka into the championship playoffs instead.
Tokyo went into the final day of the regular season third in the table with a two-point advantage over fourth-place Gamba, but with an inferior goal difference that made a win over Tosu imperative if Gamba were to beat relegated Montedio Yamagata elsewhere the same day.
A 4-0 win for Gamba — with all four goals coming in the space of five second-half minutes — turned the heat up on Tokyo, but the capital city side was unable to respond in an insipid performance in front of 30,753 at Ajinomoto Stadium.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Tokyo defender Masato Morishige. “Of course we are still in the Emperor’s Cup, but we have been working all year to try to win the championship. We had this chance but we couldn’t take it and that is disappointing.”
Gamba will now play overall points runnerup Urawa Reds in a one-off game at Saitama Stadium next Saturday, with the winner facing overall points champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a two-legged championship decider on Dec. 2 and 5.
Sanfrecce beat Shonan Bellmare 5-0 to wrap up both the overall points title and the second-stage title, with striker Hisato Sato scoring to tie Masashi Nakayama’s all-time J1 scoring record of 157 goals.
Tokyo, meanwhile, must watch the business end of the season from afar after failing to beat Tosu, leaving manager Massimo Ficcadenti to reflect on a missed opportunity.
“It was a very difficult game,” said the Italian. “They didn’t give us any space and I knew they would be dangerous on the counterattack.
“We had chances — not many, but some. In the second half, Tosu came close and hit the post, but a draw would have meant nothing to us and we had to go for the win.”
Both teams gave as good as they got in an open first half, with Ryoichi Maeda and Hiroki Kawano both going close for Tokyo before Ryota Hayasaka fired over the bar for the visitors.
Tokyo’s nerves began to jangle with the game still goalless, and defender Yuichi Maruyama was lucky to escape with just a yellow card after a wild tackle on Yutaka Yoshida early in the second half.
And with Gamba suddenly taking a four-goal lead over Montedio, Tokyo found itself needing a goal to stay alive.
“We didn’t know the score of the other game,” said defender Kosuke Ota. “We were just looking to score. The fact that we couldn’t shows that we are still lacking.”
The home side struggled to find the imagination to create chances, and Sagan substitute Daichi Kamada almost sealed Tokyo’s fate with a shot that hit the post in the 85th minute.
Yuhei Tokunaga then headed a injury-time corner harmlessly wide, and referee Yudai Yamamoto confirmed Tokyo’s elimination with the final whistle.
“I haven’t criticized this team in the two years that I’ve been here and I’m not about to start now,” said Ficcadenti, who will leave the club at the end of the season.
“Of course I have some regrets, but no one thought we would be able to win the title in two years and we got as close as this.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Urawa Reds were confirmed as overall runners-up with a 5-2 win over Vissel Kobe, while Kawasaki Frontale striker Yoshito Okubo finished the regular season as top scorer with the winning goal — his 23rd of the season — in a 1-0 victory over Vegalta Sendai.
Relegated Shimizu S-Pulse bowed out with a 2-2 draw with Ventforet Kofu, Kashima Antlers beat Nagoya Grampus 1-0, and Kashiwa Reysol and Albirex Niigata drew 1-1.
In the day’s other game, Yokohama F. Marinos and Matsumoto Yamaga drew 0-0.
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