IWATA, Shizuoka Pref. - The J. League’s 26th season drew to a close on Saturday with a showdown between two storied clubs that would seem familiar — yet in other ways somewhat alien — to those who watched from the terraces and in front of TV sets in the 1990s.
Instead of Jubilo Iwata and Tokyo Verdy battling for the title as they did so many times in those early years (the latter known at the time as Verdy Kawasaki), on this day they were fighting for the right to play in next season’s first division, as Koki Ogawa’s penalty kick and Taishi Taguchi’s screamer of a free kick spared Jubilo the agony of relegation in a 2-0 win at a packed Yamaha Stadium.
After a dramatic own goal sealed Iwata’s 16th-place J1 finish on Dec. 1, Saturday’s match was the last chance for manager Hiroshi Nanami to keep his team in the top flight for a fourth season since earning promotion in 2015. He took no questions in his post-match news conference, instead speaking at length on the result and revealing that he had been prepared to step down had Jubilo been relegated.
“This match didn’t need to happen,” Nanami said. “I intended to resign if we’d lost, but right now I can’t say anything (about my future). I know it may cause some problems with signing player contracts but I need a bit of time. I take full responsibility for us having needed to play this game.”
While the Shizuoka side had two weeks to prepare for the final, it was Verdy which arrived with the lion’s share of momentum. Facing two win-or-go-home games (as opposed to the draw-and-advance scenarios enjoyed by the higher seeds), Miguel Lotina’s men had twice delivered late to pull off stunning upsets against Omiya Ardija and Yokohama FC and get to this final.
“We did great work this year. The players were professional from the first day to today,” Lotina reflected. “It’s disappointing that we gave up a chance at promotion but I’m satisfied with what we accomplished this season.”
Those accomplishments were not enough. The hosts maintained the majority of possession in the first half thanks to their high-pressing tactics, and it was a superb spot of goalkeeping by Verdy’s Naoto Kamifukumoto which kept Iwata midfielder Daiki Yamada’s close-range shot out of the net in the 21st minute.
“The first half was very important but we gave up the ball too easily. We could see how well they were playing from how they stole the ball,” commented Lotina.
In the 31st minute it was three-time Golden Boot winner Yoshito Okubo who showed his flair, brilliantly sliding into the box to take possession before his soft looping shot was deflected by a defender and saved by the Verdy ‘keeper.
Kamifukumoto’s luck finally ran out in the 40th minute, when he took down Koki Ogawa in a one-on-one and left referee Masaaki Iemoto with no other option than to point to the spot. The 21-year-old Ogawa duly converted to give Jubilo a 1-0 lead.
“I’m not yet playing up to the level our manager expects,” Tokyo 2020 hopeful Ogawa said. “He wants to see a lot from me, so I have to shoot more and score more.
“It’s difficult to play in the Olympics if you don’t do well in J1, so it’s even more important that we were able to stay in the J1.”
The introduction of veteran striker Leandro for Verdy after halftime did little to kick start a comeback by the J2 representatives, who initially struggled to create sustained possession out of the back thanks to frequent turnovers. Leandro’s best chance on goal came in the 65th minute, but he was denied by Jubilo’s Polish netminder Krzysztof Kaminski.
“Leandro has scored a lot of goals against us and we worked to keep him off the scoreboard,” Nanami said.
“Before anything turned into a dangerous situation we were able to stay focused and prevent that from happening,” noted Jubilo defender Kentaro Oi. “It’s thanks to our frontline attackers that we were able to concentrate on the transition from defense to attack.”
After Okubo’s 77th-minute rocket from just inside the penalty area ricocheted off the crossbar and back into play, Jubilo at last found their 2-0 lead just three minutes later when Taguchi’s free kick sliced through the Verdy wall like a knife through the hearts of the thousand-strong green-clad visiting fans in attendance.
“We lost any chances when they scored their second goal,” Lotina said. “If we’d scored a 1-1 equalizer they might have panicked and we would have had a chance.”
The remaining 10 minutes — plus five minutes of stoppage time — were far from the amount of time Verdy would need to score the three goals needed to win promotion. The final whistle ended the capital side’s fairy-tale run, dooming the J. League co-founders to an 11th straight J2 season as the song of around 13,000 home fans reverberated in the December chill.
“These are the sort of situations you have to overcome to become stronger,” reflected Jubilo attacker Adailton. “Next year we want to use this experience and work hard to turn our struggles into success.”