SAITAMA – Many pivotal moments in Japanese soccer history have been drilled down to the question of “which team can get it done on a cold winter night at Saitama Stadium?”
On Sunday, the answer was Urawa Reds, who held off Vegalta Sendai 1-0 through a Tomoya Ugajin scorcher to win the 98th Emperor’s Cup and claim a direct berth in next year’s AFC Champions League.
With the 2019 tournament set to conclude at the New National Stadium on Jan. 1 of 2020, Sunday’s match was the fifth and final Emperor’s Cup final to be held outside of central Tokyo since the closure of the old National Stadium.
It was also the earliest final of the modern era — originally rescheduled from the traditional New Year’s Day to Dec. 24 to accommodate Japan’s Asian Cup preparations, the match was moved up to Sunday to avoid a clash with Kashima Antlers’ participation in the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup.
The 6 p.m. kickoff, set in deference to traffic restrictions caused by the Saitama International Marathon held earlier in the day, resulted in temperatures in the single digits when players walked out onto the pitch, surrounded by a decidedly pro-Urawa crowd.
“Our supporters made the difference,” said Reds manager Oswaldo Oliveira. “They helped our players go past their limits and play over 100 percent.
“Having several hundred fans visit training on Saturday motivated the players, and they gave us a great welcome when we arrived at the stadium today.”
Yet while the famous Urawa Boys may have overwhelmed most teams’ supporters with their intensity, Vegalta’s traveling contingent did not disappoint, singing loudly until the final whistle.
“We were prepared for an away atmosphere, but I want to thank our supporters for coming out in force and keeping us from playing in completely enemy territory,” Vegalta manager Susumu Watanabe said. “Their support helped our players work hard over 90 minutes.”
First blood came in the 13th minute on a vicious strike by Urawa midfielder Ugajin, who met a clearance outside the box with a volley that rocketed past newly-minted Samurai Blue netminder Daniel Schmidt and shook the back of the net.
Vegalta nearly replied in the 26th when Gakuto Notsuda’s screamer from distance forced a diving save by Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
The rest of the half played out fairly evenly, featuring good chances by both teams as well as several heated exchanges including a yellow card to Sendai defender Ko Itakura.
The Tohoku side did not shirk from the challenge despite the 1-0 deficit, bravely pressing forward with several strong attacks to open the second half. Notsuda’s 59th-minute free kick looked dangerous but sailed just over the crossbar, and a Takuma Abe bullet went straight toward Nishikawa in the 71st.
After fending off numerous Sendai efforts, Urawa was comfortable to sit back and defend until the final whistle, handing Oliveira his third Emperor’s Cup title after having won the tournament twice with Kashima in 2007 and 2010. He did so with a squad hobbled by injuries suffered in Wednesday’s semifinal win over his former club.
“(Shinzo) Koroki, (Yuki) Muto, and (Takuya) Aoki were injured in the semifinals,” Oliveira said. “They were limited but they were able to play accurately and disciplined today. I’m grateful to the staff for getting the players into shape in time for today’s match.”
While the runner-up finish was disappointing for Vegalta in the club’s first-ever appearance in a final, it nevertheless represented a significant accomplishment for a team that had lost in the first round of the last two editions.
“Considering the scale of our club, it’s difficult for us to say we want to win all three competitions (the Emperor’s Cup, the J. League, and the J. League Cup),” admitted Watanabe. “We set goals for each competition and tried to achieve them.
“The result is everything, and even though we made it to the final we’re disappointed that it ended like this, and now we know the bitterness of finishing in second place. We still want to go back to Sendai tomorrow with our heads held high.”
The Reds, ACL champions in 2007 and 2017, will contest the 2019 ACL’s Group G alongside Beijing Guoan, Jeonbuk Motors, and Buriram United.