OSAKA – Cerezo Osaka sealed their return to Japanese soccer’s top flight Sunday after defeating Fagiano Okayama 1-0 in the J. League promotion playoff final.
Shohei Kiyohara got the winner at a pouring-wet Kincho Stadium, scrambling home from a meter out in the 52nd minute after a corner from the right hit Okayama’s veteran defender Daiki Iwamasa and sneaked through the legs of keeper Hirotsugu Nakabayashi into his path.
Cerezo, who went down to J2 in 2014 despite boasting 2010 World Cup top scorer Diego Forlan and Japan international Yoichiro Kakitani, made it past the playoff semifinals in a draw with lower-ranked Kyoto Sanga and needed a win or a draw at their home ground in the final on the basis of the J2 standings.
Cerezo finished the J2 season in fourth, above sixth-placed Okayama which downed third-place Matsumoto Yamaga to reach the final. Sanga were fifth.
Consadole Sapporo and Shimizu S-Pulse finished one-two in the second division to earn automatic promotion back to the first division, while teams in second to sixth places competed in the playoffs for one more spot.
“I started the season as captain but troubled my team by being out with injury for five months,” said a tearful Kakitani, who returned to his boyhood club after a year and a half at Basel in Switzerland.
“This is a win that we’ve won all together. I want to share the joy with all the players and supporters.”
Midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi, whose return to the club in June after just half a season with Hannover in Germany was met with raised eyebrows including those of Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, was relieved with the promotion.
“When I returned, I knew everything would be in vain if I couldn’t help the team win promotion,” he said. “Although it wasn’t an automatic promotion, I’m glad to have achieved the target.”
After an evenly matched first half, Fagiano had the first opening to the game with Makoto Mimura’s fierce strike from inside the box saved two minutes in by Kim Jin-hyeon and Yuta Toyokawa seeing a decent header caught moments before Kiyohara’s opener.
Yamaguchi had the chance to bury the game a minute into the stoppage time as he stole the ball following a slip from Daisuke Ito, running half the length of the pitch before his shot was denied by keeper Nakabayashi.
But it mattered little as Cerezo clinched their return and celebrated wearing the No. 9 shirt worn by former striker Kempes, who played for the side in 2012, scoring seven goals in J1, and was one of the 71 victims of the plane crash Monday in Colombia that was carrying Brazilian side Chapecoense.
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