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Frontale capture J. League title with rout of Ardija; Antlers held

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kawasaki Frontale clinched their first-ever J. League title with a 5-0 win over Omiya Ardija on Saturday, snatching the silverware from under Kashima Antlers’ noses on goal difference.

Frontale went into the final day of the season having cut the gap on league-leader Kashima to two points thanks to a 14-game unbeaten run, and knew that their superior goal difference meant a win over already-relegated Omiya at Todoroki Stadium would hand them the title if Antlers failed to beat Jubilo Iwata away from home.

Frontale kept their side of the bargain in emphatic style, with Hiroyuki Abe opening the scoring after just 48 seconds. Yu Kobayashi then notched a hat trick to earn him the J. League’s top scorer award with 23 goals, before substitute Tatsuya Hasegawa scored a fifth in the 96th minute.

Frontale’s win would have counted for nothing if Antlers had been able to find a late goal against Jubilo, but a 0-0 draw was the best the defending champions could muster, giving Frontale their first-ever major trophy.

“The fans gave us great support today but to be honest there were times when they went a little bit quiet, and during those moments I wondered if Kashima had scored,” said Kobayashi. “But I looked at the bench and our players were telling us that it was still 0-0.

“Then at the end, the fans gave out a huge cheer and I thought, ‘maybe we’ve done it.’ It really was thanks to the fans that we have won this title.”

Frontale have finished J. League runners-up three times, and have lost in the League Cup final three times and the Emperor’s Cup final once. The club’s latest heartbreaking near miss came last month when it lost 2-0 to Cerezo Osaka in the League Cup final.

Frontale’s trophy drought looked set to continue when Kashima took a commanding lead in the run-in to the J. League season, only for the eight-time champions to draw their last two games when a win in either would have handed them the trophy.

“Kashima kept winning and that meant we could never take things at our pace,” said Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura, who is in his 15th year with the club. “It has been very difficult, especially the past month and a half, but we have been determined to win the title.

“We have had so many games where we just had to win, but we got through them. All year, none of us have allowed ourselves to be shaken. We lost in the Asian Champions League and the League Cup, but we kept going right until the end in the league. Winning the title just reminds me how important it is not to give up.”

Frontale started the match needing to score to have any chance of winning the title, and with less than a minute on the clock, Abe duly obliged. Elsinho rampaged forward with the ball at his feet before laying it off to Abe, who took a touch before lashing it past goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato.

“The ball came to me in the position where I’m best, and I hit it with power and confidence,” said Abe, who also won the title with Gamba Osaka in 2014. “That goal was a product of the energy that we started the game with.”

The home side comfortably controlled the game for the rest of the first half without creating many further chances, until Kobayashi popped up to head home an Akihiro Ienaga cross in injury time.

“We scored early but we didn’t really play so well after that,” said Kobayashi. “I think the second goal was very important.”

Kobayashi then took his tally to 22 for the season when he converted Frontale’s third goal in the 60th minute, turning home another cross from Ienaga.

“I didn’t look to see if he was there but I believed he would be,” said Ienaga. “That’s something we practice in training.”

Frontale made it four in the 81st minute when Shintaro Kurumaya was tripped in the Ardija box and Kobayashi stepped up to the penalty spot to claim his hat trick and the season’s top-scorer award, one ahead of Cerezo Osaka’s Kenyu Sugimoto.

“I started today’s game two goals behind (Sugimoto),” said Kobayashi. “Then I scored twice and I thought there was no way that Kenyu wouldn’t score, so I really wanted to get a third. After the second and third I still wanted to score more, and I think that effort is what has brought me this result.”

Hasegawa then broke away to score a fifth deep into injury time, and news of Kashima’s failure to beat Jubilo filtered through moments later to send Todoroki into rapturous celebrations.

“Of course I feel happy, but we had big losses in the League Cup and Asian Champions League and the frustration of that stayed with me,” said Frontale manager Toru Oniki, who took over from Yahiro Kazama at the start of the season.

“I didn’t know the score of the other game when the full-time whistle went, so when I found out, it was a big outpouring of joy. I’m so happy that I don’t know what to say. I was so focused on winning the game today that I didn’t know what to say in my speech to the fans.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Ventforet Kofu’s five-year run in the first division came to an end despite a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai, as Shimizu S-Pulse clinched their safety with a 3-1 victory over Vissel Kobe. Albirex Niigata and Omiya will join Ventforet in J2 next season, although Albirex consigned Omiya to last place with a 1-0 win over Cerezo.

Kashiwa Reysol took fourth place behind Cerezo after beating Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0, while Yokohama F. Marinos leapfrogged Jubilo into fifth with a 1-0 over Asian champions Urawa Reds.

In the day’s other games, Consadole Sapporo beat Sagan Tosu 3-2, and FC Tokyo drew 0-0 with Gamba.