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Frontale worthy J. League champions despite Antlers’ slip-ups

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Kawasaki Frontale captain Yu Kobayashi said he believed his team was “cursed” when it lost to Cerezo Osaka in last month’s J. League Cup final, but that must have made the club’s first-ever J. League title all the sweeter when it arrived last weekend.

Frontale clinched the title on Saturday with a 5-0 home win over Omiya Ardija, leapfrogging Kashima Antlers on goal difference on the final day of the season after the now-deposed defending champions could only draw 0-0 at Jubilo Iwata. The title was Frontale’s first major trophy, finally marking a change of fortunes for a club that has finished as runner-up in the J. League three times, the League Cup four times and the Emperor’s Cup once.

Last month’s 2-0 League Cup defeat to Cerezo was particularly difficult for Frontale to swallow, after they dominated the match but lost because of goals conceded in the first and last minutes. But it is a testament to Frontale’s resilience that they were able to brush aside the disappointment and hunt Antlers down in the league, finishing with a 15-game unbeaten streak that featured several late comebacks.

“After the disappointments we had, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the team had fallen apart,” said midfielder Kengo Nakamura. “But the players and manager talked it through and we were determined to recover. We knew that if we gave up it was all over.”

Mental strength is a quality more commonly associated with serial winner Kashima than Kawasaki, and it was astonishing to see the eight-time champions fail to clinch the title when a victory in either of their final two games would have sufficed.

“It’s frustrating, really disappointing,” said Antlers manager Go Oiwa, whose team had a four-point lead with two games to go. “I’ve already spoken to the players about the need to use this frustration as fuel for next year. They’ve fought really hard and I feel that the fact they weren’t able to win was down to my inexperience.”

Whatever Kashima’s shortcomings, there can be no doubt that Frontale were worthy champions. They scored the most goals with 71 — six more than second-best Cerezo and a full 18 more than Antlers — and conceded only 32, an average of less than one a game.

Frontale were also the most exciting side to watch over the course of the season, with J. League player of the year and 23-goal top scorer Kobayashi outstanding in attack, Ryota Oshima and Hiroyuki Abe buzzing around behind him, and Nakamura pulling the strings in midfield.

Nakamura, who has been at the club for 15 years and has shared in every one of its heartbreaks, clearly deserves this title more than anyone. But immense credit must also go to rookie manager Toru Oniki, who took over a team still reeling from the double blow of losing last season’s championship semifinal and departed star striker Yoshito Okubo, but never let his inexperience show.

“I don’t fully understand what it was that allowed us to take the final step and win the title, but I think one thing that was very important was that we didn’t let the defeats get us down,” said Oniki. “I wanted to bring positive energy to the team after we lost. Even if you’re feeling angry, it’s better to come in with a smile on your face. It’s no good being downcast. We always wanted to get over things quickly, and I think that all added up in the end.”

Frontale’s final-day victory also gave the J. League and ¥210 billion broadcast partner DAZN the final-day drama they wanted, but it could just as easily have fallen flat. Antlers would have won the title without even playing if Frontale had failed to get a positive result on two separate occasions, which would have marked an inauspicious return to the single-stage format after two years of the unpopular playoff system.

As it was, though, Frontale’s demolition of Ardija was about as perfect an ending as anyone could have wished for. A last-minute goal for Kashima would have turned everything on its head, but fate was on Frontale’s side from the moment Abe opened the scoring after 48 seconds and the outpouring of joy and relief at the final whistle will live long in the memory of everyone who was at Todoroki Stadium.

After so many years of near misses, who could begrudge them that?