The J. League’s scheduling software, known affectionately as “Nittei-kun” by fans, has earned a reputation over the years as having an uncanny ability to schedule dramatic fixtures at the end of the season.
That FC Tokyo’s 2-0 loss to Kawasaki Frontale in Saturday’s Tamagawa Clasico turned out to be the least-meaningful game of Round 33 is indeed no fault of Nittei-kun’s, but rather a manifestation of the consistent dominance which Frontale rode to their second straight league title, this year clinched with two rounds to spare.
The real drama occurred far afield from the capital, where Nagoya Grampus, Sagan Tosu, and Shonan Bellmare all won their games, each assuring itself of at least a spot in the J1 Playoff and dooming Kashiwa Reysol to automatic relegation in the process.
Tokyo, playing in front of a sold-out Ajinomoto Stadium for the second time this season, demonstrated the form which has defined the team since the World Cup break: that of a midtable struggler lucky to be in the top third of the standings. The team’s last goal at home came on Aug. 5 in its previous sellout, a 1-0 win over an Andres Iniesta-less Vissel Kobe, and Saturday’s result extinguished any hope of a spot in next year’s AFC Champions League.
“It’s disappointing to have lost that objective (of playing in the ACL),” said Tokyo defender Kosuke Ota. “But compared to last season (in which Tokyo finished in 13th) there has been a lot of progress.”
Kawasaki, meanwhile, showed none of the hesitancy it displayed in Round 32’s league-clinching loss at Cerezo Osaka. Backed by around a third of the 37,422 supporters in attendance, the visitors took the lead in the 19th minute through Kei Chinen, playing as the lone striker in relief of an injured Yu Kobayashi. The 23-year-old received the ball at the top of the penalty area after a woeful turnover by Tokyo captain Jang Hyun-soo and did not hesitate to bury his shot into the bottom left corner.
“They’re the champions and we knew that,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said. “There aren’t many clubs which can press as they did in the first half.
“If we had scored in the second half, the rhythm would have shifted toward us, but when (Frontale) set up blocks like that we can’t do much.”
Frontale was unlucky not to take a 2-0 lead soon after Chinen’s goal, as Tokyo goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi repelled Shintaro Kuromaya’s shot with a leaping save. Kawasaki continued to dominate through the halftime whistle, with Tokyo only making rare incursions into the attacking third through a largely isolated Diego Oliveira.
A lighting-fast vertical counter by Kawasaki just five minutes into the second half took away any doubt as to who would take home three points, with Hayashi able to block Chinen’s shot from close range but helpless to stop Tatsuya Hasegawa’s second-effort header.
“We felt disappointed to win the league despite losing (on Nov. 10 at Cerezo),” recalled Frontale manager Toru Oniki. “(Coming into Saturday) we only had two games left to show our style of soccer on the pitch.”
Elsewhere, Kashiwa’s 3-0 victory at Cerezo Osaka was to no avail, as Shonan Bellmare’s win over the Urawa Reds, Sagan Tosu’s win against Yokohama F. Marinos, and Nagoya Grampus’ win at Sanfrecce Hiroshima — all 2-1 final scores — ensured the 2011 champions of a 17th-place finish.
Kashima Antlers rose to within a point of second-place Sanfrecce with a 3-0 win at Vegalta Sendai, while Gamba Osaka fought off a spirited V-Varen Nagasaki to triumph 2-1.
At IAI Stadium, Shimizu S-Pulse drew 3-3 with Vissel Kobe in a match which featured nearly 20 minutes of stoppage time after a head-to-head collision led to frayed tempers and escalating confrontations on the pitch, with S-Pulse goalkeeper Yuji Rokutan scoring the equalizer in the 104th minute. Vissel ended the game with nine players after Naoyuki Fujita and Wellington each received two yellows. Vissel ended the game with nine players after Naoyuki Fujita and Wellington each received two yellows.
Bellmare, Tosu and Grampus, along with Jubilo Iwata who lost 2-0 to Consadole Sapporo, remain candidates to finish in 16th place, with that team hosting the J1 Playoff final against either Yokohama FC, Omiya Ardija or Tokyo Verdy.
Consadole, which with 54 points will finish fourth or better for the first time in club history, can qualify for a maiden ACL appearance with a win next Saturday against Hiroshima and a direct ticket to the group stage should Antlers also draw or lose against Sagan Tosu.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5