YOKOHAMA – A month ago, Saturday’s match between Yokohama F. Marinos and FC Tokyo was billed as potentially the most climactic finish ever to the J. League season, with the two sides neck-and-neck alongside the Kashima Antlers, a club that knows a thing or two about grinding out first-division championships in the home stretch.
Instead, Nissan Stadium was the scene of a coronation for Marinos, who claimed their first J1 title in 15 years after first-half goals by Theerathon and Erik as well as a second-half goal by Keita Endo added up to a 3-0 victory over their Kanto neighbors.
The stage was set for a party of massive proportions, with Marinos’ push to brand their season finale as “The Big Game” — complete with a billboard-sized league table in the depths of Yokohama Station that was updated after each round — resulting in a new first-division attendance record of 63,854.
Second-place Tokyo came into the match needing a four-goal margin of victory in order to pull even with Marinos in points and win its first-ever J1 title on goal difference after drawing its previous two games.
But despite some promising attacks by Tokyo early in the first half, it was instead Marinos who looked like a team not only in urgent need of four goals, but fully possessing the confidence needed to go out and score them.
That Marinos did not sit on its superior goal difference and defend is a testament to the rewards the club has reaped from manager Ange Postecoglou’s unapologetic brand of attacking soccer.
The hosts’ first goal came with perhaps a bit of luck in the 26 minutes, when Thai defender Theerathon’s wild effort from well outside the box was deflected at point-blank range by Tokyo captain Keigo Higashi, resulting in the ball floating just over the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi.
Midseason acquisition Erik, who scored twice in Yokohama’s key win over Kawasaki Frontale last week, made it 2-0 just before the end of the period after outwitting two defenders at the edge of the area and slotting a low grounder inside the left post.
The result seemed all but certain at halftime, with Tokyo needing six unanswered goals in the second half to upend Marinos.
Things took a dramatic turn in the 65th minute, when Marinos goalkeeper Park Il-gyu was shown a red card by referee Hiroyuki Kimura, who had initially whistled for a foul before showing a caution — for his high challenge against Kensuke Nagai just outside the penalty area.
Backup goalkeeper Hirotsugu Nakabayashi came on to occupy the space between the Marinos posts, but even had the 33-year-old not replaced Marcos Junior it seemed far from certain that Tokyo would be able to tie the game in the remaining 20 minutes, to say nothing of scoring the needed six goals.
Instead the next player to reach the scoreboard was Marinos substitute midfielder Endo, who concluded a brilliant solo run up the left side by easily beating Tokyo defender Tsuyoshi Watanabe and sending a low shot past Hayashi’s left leg.
As J. League champions, Marinos will join the 2020 Asian Champions League from the group stage, while FC Tokyo and third-place Kashima, which beat Nagoya Grampus 1-0 at Toyota Stadium, will participate from the playoff stage on Jan 28.
After failing to win a third straight J1 crown, Kawasaki Frontale finished in fourth despite a 2-1 win away at Consadole Sapporo and will join the ACL’s playoff stage if Antlers win the ongoing Emperor’s Cup.
Shonan Bellmare finished in 16th and will host next weekend’s promotion-relegation final after allowing a 90th-minute goal to already relegated Matsumoto Yamaga’s Toyofumi Sakano in a 1-1 draw at Sunpro Alwin Stadium.
The result in Matsumoto was a reprieve to Sagan Tosu, who lost 1-0 to Shimizu S-Pulse at IAI Stadium Nihondaira and would have finished in 16th had Bellmare held on to win.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Lukas Podolski netted a hat trick and David Villa scored in his final J. League game as Vissel Kobe saw off last-place Jubilo Iwata 4-1.
The Urawa Reds lost 3-2 to Gamba Osaka at Saitama Stadium, Sanfrecce Hiroshima managed a 1-0 victory over Vegalta Sendai, and Cerezo Osaka ended the year strongly with a 2-0 win at Oita Trinita.