HIROSHIMA - Sanfrecce Hiroshima claimed their third J. League title in four years with a 4-3 aggregate win over Gamba Osaka after a 1-1 draw in the second leg of the championship final on Saturday night.
Sanfrecce went into the match at Edion Stadium protecting a 3-2 lead from Wednesday’s first leg — courtesy of two injury-time goals — but Gamba midfielder Yasuyuki Konno struck in the 27th minute to leave the championship resting on a knife-edge.
One more goal for Gamba would have seen the defending champions retain their title, but instead Sanfrecce substitute Takuma Asano headed home a 76th-minute equalizer to return the trophy to Hiroshima after a year’s absence.
“Everyone has given everything for this team, and I’m overjoyed that we’ve won the title,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu, who has been in charge for all three of the team’s title wins. “Every player and every member of staff has done what was asked of them and we have won this title as a team and as a club.
“We’ve had a lot of difficult games this season and we have sought to grow as the season went on. The players have shown the attitude to always fight until the end and they had the toughness and resilience to get the job done.”
Sanfrecce racked up the most points over the regular season but still had to face off against Gamba under the J. League’s new playoff format. Third-place Gamba beat second-place Urawa Reds to book their place in the championship final, while Sanfrecce went automatically to the title game.
Injury-time goals from Sho Sasaki and Yoshifumi Kashiwa in the first leg in Osaka put Sanfrecce in the driving seat going into Saturday’s game, but it wasn’t until Asano struck that the crowd of 36,609 were able to breathe easy.
“There were so many people watching tonight, and I was determined to score,” said Asano, who replaced Sanfrecce talisman Hisato Sato midway through the second half. “Kashiwa sent in a good cross and I was able to put it away.
“I’ve missed so many chances this season and I’ve caused a lot of trouble for my teammates, so I’m really glad I scored tonight.”
Gamba needed to score at least two goals to stand a chance of winning the title, and Takashi Usami and Hiroki Fujiharu both fired shots over the bar as the visitors took the early initiative.
The pressure paid off when Konno opened the scoring shortly before the half-hour mark. Yasuhito Endo sent in an outswinging corner that Konno met with a swing of his boot, although it was a touch by Sanfrecce defender Sasaki that appeared to send the ball past goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi.
The goal coaxed Sanfrecce out of their shell, and Kosei Shibasaki ripped a shot just wide of the post as the home side finished the first half on the offensive.
Shibasaki threatened the Gamba goal again as Sanfrecce began the second half with the same attacking intent, before Gamba substitute Shu Kurata blazed over the bar at the other end with the game still very much in the balance.
Both managers rolled the dice with a series of attacking substitutions, and Asano began to cause the visitors no end of problems with his searing pace.
But it was the 21-year-old’s aerial ability that hammered the nail in Gamba’s coffin, as he leapt to meet Kashiwa’s cross and head it past Masaaki Higashiguchi for the equalizer.
Gamba threw everything forward in search of the two goals they now needed to defend their title, but it was Sanfrecce who looked likeliest to score again with Asano’s speed stretching the visitors’ defense to the limit.
“It was really difficult to play our football tonight but thanks to the team effort the goal came in the end,” said Sanfrecce captain Toshihiro Aoyama. “Last season was disappointing for us, but now we’ve won the title and we’re back on the right track.”