HIROSHIMA - Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato admits that the fear of missing out on the 2015 J. League title after finishing the regular season on top of the table helped drive his side to the championship.
Sanfrecce made it three J. League titles in four years after beating Gamba Osaka in the championship final, claiming a 1-1 home draw in Saturday night’s second leg to edge the defending champions 4-3 on aggregate.
Sanfrecce finished the regular season in first place but still had to beat Gamba to claim the silverware, after the J. League replaced the single-league format it used from 2005-2014 with a playoff system starting this season.
That left Sanfrecce in danger of losing the title to a Gamba side that finished the regular season a full 11 points off the pace in third place and only sneaked into the playoffs on goal difference, and Sato admitted the prospect of failure weighed heavily on his mind.
“There was a fear that we could have won the most points over the whole season but still not had anything to show for it,” said Sato, who tied Masashi Nakayama’s all-time record for the most J1 goals scored with his 157th career strike on the final day of the regular season.
“We won the first leg, so tonight Gamba had nothing to lose and we knew that they would come at us hard. There was some fear from that, and now that the two games are over I’m relieved.
“There was a lot of pressure, but the more pressure there is, the sweeter the victory.”
Sanfrecce held a 3-2 lead going into the second leg at their own Edion Stadium, after two injury-time goals in the first leg in Osaka dramatically shifted the balance of power in Hajime Moriyasu’s side’s favor.
Gamba midfielder Yasuyuki Konno scored in the 27th minute of the second leg to leave the championship hanging in the balance, but 21-year-old substitute Takuma Asano headed in a 76th-minute equalizer to seal the deal for Sanfrecce.
“For the first time, I feel so overcome with emotion that I can’t put it into words,” said Sanfrecce’s Brazilian striker Douglas, who finished the regular season second in the scoring charts with 21 goals.
“Asano has scored some important goals for us and he is still young so he is only going to get better. Everyone worked hard and did their jobs tonight, and this result is all down to that.”
Moriyasu became only the second manager to win three J. League titles, following former Kashima Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira, but the 47-year-old admitted that his team struggled in the face of early Gamba pressure.
“I stressed the importance of the mental side of the game to the players in the meetings beforehand,” said Moriyasu. “We knew we would have to defend going into the game, and we also knew that we would have to handle whatever the game threw up.
“What we have done over the course of this season has taken us this far, so we needed to take confidence from that.”
Sanfrecce now take their place as Japan’s representative in the Club World Cup, starting with an opening assignment against Oceania champion Auckland City in Yokohama on Thursday.
Last year’s treble winners Gamba, meanwhile, must now try to salvage their season in the Emperor’s Cup, and defender Hiroki Fujiharu was left lamenting his side’s over-reliance on star forward Takashi Usami.
“If we had been able to score a second goal and make it 2-0 then I think we could have gone on to win it,” said Fujiharu, who booked Gamba’s place in the final with a spectacular last-gasp goal against second-place Urawa Reds in the championship semifinal.
“The fact that we couldn’t do that is where we fell short. Up until now, we’ve kept looking to Takashi to score the goals, but other players have to step up and score them as well.”
Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa was gracious in defeat, however, and was also quick to heap praise on his opposite number Moriyasu.
“His team management is excellent,” said Hasegawa. “He set clear targets for the season, and I don’t think I would be able to know just the right time to substitute Sato the way he does. Of course that’s a product of their relationship, but to keep getting it right over the whole season is something that normal managers can’t do.
“He never changes his way of doing things and he’s very strong mentally. Maybe he changed things a little this year because they didn’t do well last season, but he’s raised the level of the team and he’s an excellent manager.”