Kashima's J. League title win a fitting end to flawed format

by Andrew McKirdy

There was always a danger that the J. League’s ill-fated introduction of a playoff championship format in 2015 would produce a deeply unsatisfying result somewhere down the line. Kashima Antlers’ coronation as champions on Saturday night duly delivered it.

Antlers beat Urawa Reds on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw in the two-legged final to lift the trophy for the eighth time, despite finishing a full 15 points behind first-place Urawa in the overall league table.

Antlers qualified for the playoffs by finishing third overall, 13 points behind second-place Kawasaki Frontale but just one ahead of fourth-place Gamba Osaka. Once the regular season had ended with Antlers losing their last four games, the Ibaraki side promptly dispatched Frontale 1-0 in a one-off semifinal before coming from behind to edge Urawa in the final.

Rules are, of course, rules, and there can be no begrudging Antlers their moment after executing their game plan to perfection against Urawa, keeping cool to recover from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg and an early Reds goal in the second.

“We conceded first but that made things more difficult mentally for Reds,” said Kashima captain Mitsuo Ogasawara. “Even though we were a goal down, we knew what we had to do and we were able to stay calm. Winning the first leg 1-0 put Urawa in a difficult position psychologically. It gave us a one-off game where we knew what we needed to do, so there was no need to panic.”

That a full league season should boil down to such percentages when the gap between the two teams over the whole year was so clear, however, makes for a very unfulfilling experience. It is undeniable that the high-stakes drama of Saturday’s game made for great entertainment, but it did not produce a deserved 2016 champion.

Of course the ability to perform on the big occasion is the mark of a champion, and there is no doubt that Urawa once again emphatically failed to deliver on that front. But cup competitions, not leagues, are the place for such all-or-nothing encounters, and trying to distill the ebb and flow of a 34-game season into a handful of knockout matches simply renders the overwhelming majority of the campaign flat and meaningless.

“The rules are that away goals are the tiebreaker, so we lost,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic after Saturday’s game. “I really don’t know what advantage those 15 points got us, but I don’t think that winning one game and losing one makes us losers.”

Now that the J. League has decided to scrap the playoff system after just two seasons and return to the single-league format from next year, however, business can return to normal. The league cited legitimate scheduling difficulties as the reason for ditching the playoffs, but few are likely to lament their demise from a sporting perspective either.

“We would have liked to have finished top of the overall table,” said Ogasawara. “But the rules are the rules and a win is a win.”

Kashima’s 2016 championship-winning team is certainly not a bad one by any stretch, but the overall league table is proof that it wasn’t the best in the J. League.

The league’s image dodged a bullet last year when Sanfrecce Hiroshima went on to win the playoffs after finishing first in the overall table. Urawa’s failure to do the same this season was a fitting epitaph for a two-stage system best consigned to the dustbin of history.