SAITAMA – Urawa Reds booked their place in the J. League Championship title match after drawing 1-1 with Yokohama F. Marinos on Thursday to finish top of the overall table.
Reds, who began the day one point ahead of second-place Kawasaki Frontale, suddenly found themselves needing to beat Marinos after Frontale took an early 2-0 lead against Gamba Osaka in a game being played simultaneously.
But a 66th-minute strike from Urawa midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi eased the nerves among the 56,841-strong Saitama Stadium crowd before Frontale conceded three quick-fire goals against Gamba to give Reds further breathing space.
An 85th-minute equalizer from Marinos substitute Quenten Martinus set up a nervy finale, but Urawa hung on for a draw as Frontale crashed 3-2 to put Reds into the two-legged championship decider against the winner of a one-off playoff between Frontale and third-place Kashima Antlers.
“Our goal was to finish top of the overall table and I’m glad that we’ve been able to do that,” said Kashiwagi, who was part of the Urawa team that finished second overall last year before losing to Gamba in the one-off playoff match.
“I wasn’t able to make much of a contribution over the second half of the campaign so I’m glad I could finish with a goal today. Last year, we weren’t able to get to the final so we want to make sure we win both legs and finish as champions.”
At the other end of the table, Nagoya Grampus were relegated for the first time in club history after losing 3-1 to Shonan Bellmare. Nagoya’s demotion leaves Antlers and Marinos as the only two clubs to have competed in J1 every season since the J. League was founded in 1993.
Frontale, who conceded three goals in the space of 11 second-half minutes against Gamba, will play Antlers at home on Nov. 23 for the right to face Urawa in the final on Nov. 29 and Dec. 3. First-stage champions Antlers, who lost 1-0 to Vissel Kobe, finished a full 13 points behind Frontale in the overall table.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic, whose team also won the second-stage title. “We’ve played 34 games and picked up 74 points, which is an excellent result. But we still have two matches to go and at this stage we can’t call ourselves J. League champions.
“I’d like to go and buy some medals from a shop and color them gold and hand them out to my players. But we’re not finished yet. We still have two games left to play.”
Frontale scored in the 6th and 18th minutes to put the pressure on Urawa, but a Toshiyuki Takagi free kick that Marinos goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto managed to palm away to safety in the 43rd minute was the best the home side could muster in the first half.
Yoshiaki Komai lashed a shot just wide in the 60th minute as Reds redoubled their efforts after the break, before Enomoto denied substitute Tadanari Lee from similar range two minutes later.
Reds’ pressure finally paid off when Kashiwagi gave them the lead, ramming home the rebound from Takahiro Sekine’s saved shot after a razor-sharp passing move had sliced the Marinos defense open.
“I knew I would get my chance,” said Kashiwagi. “I could see the ball was going to rebound there.”
Gamba’s sudden three-goal salvo against Frontale — with strikes from Hiroki Fujiharu, Yosuke Ideguchi and Ademilson — further lifted Reds’ mood. But Martinus cranked the tension right back up again when he latched onto a pass from Sho Ito and smacked a left-foot shot past Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
“Marinos didn’t create many chances, but when they got one they scored from it,” said Petrovic. “We need to be able to do the same.”
Reds will now look to win the title for the first time since 2006, and Marinos manager Erick Mombaerts believes they would make worthy champions.
“I’m not used to this kind of championship,” the Frenchman said of the J. League’s two-stage system, which will be discarded next season after only two years’ use. “I don’t really know the reason why it’s being used.
“I think Urawa should be the champions. They’ve picked up the most points and won the most games. I’m sure there is a reason why this system is being used, but there aren’t any other cases like it.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Bellmare’s win over Grampus meant Albirex Niigata, Ventforet Kofu and Jubilo Iwata all preserved their first-division status. Albirex lost 1-0 to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to survive on goal difference, while Ventforet lost 1-0 to Sagan Tosu and Jubilo beat Vegalta Sendai 1-0.
Gamba’s win over Frontale saw them finish in fourth place ahead of Omiya Ardija, who lost 1-0 to FC Tokyo. In the day’s other game, Kashiwa Reysol thrashed already relegated Avispa Fukuoka 4-0.