OSAKA – Only twice in the J. League’s previous 12 seasons under a single-stage format has the first-division champion been decided with games to spare.
Now that number stands at three.
Kawasaki Frontale may have lost 2-1 at Cerezo Osaka on Saturday afternoon, but Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 1-0 loss to Vegalta Sendai ensured the Kanagawa Prefecture side of a first-place finish in the 2018 campaign.
With the title chase having essentially become a two-team race several rounds ago, Frontale arrived at Yanmar Stadium knowing it would need only to match Sanfrecce’s result at home to become the fifth club to claim consecutive J1 titles.
“This is what we aimed for all season,” said Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi.
They did it with a starting lineup featuring no fewer than six players who have called Kawasaki home since graduating from high school or university.
The first half was slower than what one would expect from both teams, perhaps owing to a rough-looking Yanmar pitch that in places resembled 70’s-style shag carpeting.
While Frontale occasionally pressured the Cerezo goal, mostly behind midfielder Hidemasa Morita’s clever dribbling efforts, there was little indication that the match was destined to become a goalscoring bonanza of the likes fans have come to expect from Kawasaki manager Toru Oniki’s side.
“It would have been great to clinch the title with a win or draw, but we’ve reached this title with steady work over the year,” said Oniki.
When the deadlock finally broke it was a former Kawasaki player on the board, as striker Kenyu Sugimoto ended a nearly three-month scoreless streak to put Cerezo up 1-0.
Had results stood in both Osaka and Hiroshima, the title chase would have extended at least until Nov. 24’s Round 33, where Frontale could potentially have clinched in the home of Tamagawa Clasico rival FC Tokyo.
But at Edion Stadium, a 67th-minute goal by 34-year-old Naoki Ishihara put Vegalta ahead, erasing Sanfrecce’s hope of a fourth league crown.
With fine netminding by the two Korean goalkeepers — Kawasaki’s Jung Sung-ryong and Cerezo’s Kim Jin-hyeon — throughout the second half, the 26,600 in attendance in Osaka seemed prepared to accept what would be a subdued title celebration.
That changed in the 90th minute when Kei Chinen was pulled down in the area by Kim during a play for the ball and veteran referee Nobutsugu Murakami pointed to the penalty spot.
The 49-year-old whistle blower had previously presided over two of Kawasaki’s most painful defeats — the 2009 J. League Cup final, a 2-0 defeat to FC Tokyo, and the 2016 J. League Championship semifinal loss to eventual champions Kashima Antlers.
This time he watched Akihiro Ienaga stepped up to the spot and stutter-stepped toward the ball, burying it into the back of the net as Kim dove the opposite way.
A goal at the death by Kazuya Yamamura kept Cerezo’s faint hopes of a third-place finish and an ACL appearance alive. It was the team’s first home win since Aug. 15 and second since May 5.
“It felt like we were able to go back to our old form and I hope that continues,” said Cerezo boss Yoon Jong-hwan. “A lot of fans came to the stadium today, and I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to give our fans more wins like today.”
But it was Frontale who remained on the ragged pitch long after the final whistle, raising their second straight schale — the real one, this time, as opposed to the cardboard facsimile used in the 2017 ceremony — in front of thousands of fans who made the trip from Kanto.
“Continuing this is important,” said veteran Kengo Nakamura, who has belonged to the club since 2003. “Every time we fell short and couldn’t win a title, that motivated us. Then we won the title and that motivated us.
“Two years ago (in 2016) I won the MVP award, but we didn’t win the title. Then we won the title. Then we won it again. Now we want to win it next year. It’s our role (as players) to keep this going.”
In other results, the Urawa Reds were 2-1 victors against Consadole Sapporo, while Shimizu S-Pulse won 2-0 over Nagoya Grampus. FC Tokyo and Jubilo Iwata finished in a scoreless draw, as did Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe and Fernando Torres’ Sagan Tosu.
A 1-0 defeat to Yokohama F. Marinos ensured that V-Varen Nagasaki would finish in the automatic relegation zone. Gamba Osaka won the last game of the day 1-0 over Shonan Bellmare.
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