Soccer

Vissel rings in new year with first-ever Emperor's Cup title

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

A new year, a new decade, a new stadium and a new champion.

Vissel Kobe christened Tokyo’s rebuilt National Stadium with its first-ever Emperor’s Cup title on Wednesday, taking advantage of a pair of defensive lapses to defeat Kashima Antlers 2-0 on New Year’s Day.

The sold-out spectacle was the match’s return to its traditional location for the first time since the 2013 final, with an announced crowd of 57,597 filling the stadium that will serve as the centerpiece of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

For Vissel, it was a chance to celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary with the first silverware in team history and secure a maiden appearance in the Asian Champions League.

They did just that under German manager Thorsten Fink, who arrived in June after the team parted ways with struggling Spanish coach Juan Manuel Lillo and guided Kobe to an improved eighth-place finish in the J. League’s first division.

“To win the club’s first title in its 25th year is an honor,” Fink said. “We’ll never forget that we won this historical first match at the new National Stadium.”

The final also served as a chance for retiring Vissel striker David Villa to lift one last trophy after having hoisted so many with Zaragoza, Valencia, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Spain.

The Euro and World Cup winner may not have had any impact on the match after starting on the bench, but the crowd was nevertheless pleased to see him make a short cameo during the second period of stoppage time.

The first 15 minutes of play were all Vissel, and striker Noriaki Fujimoto finally appeared to make good in the 18th minute, earning initial credit as the scorer of his team’s opener.

But most of the responsibility went to Antlers goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae, who bafflingly punched Lukas Podolski’s cross low — only for it to bounce off the leg of defender Tomoya Inukai, who was closely marking Fujimoto, and back into the net.

“We were aiming to get behind Kashima Antlers’ back line,” Fink said of his use of Fujimoto and Podolski. “Fujimoto’s scored a lot against Antlers and I expected him to do well today. They were both involved in goals and overall they did well.”

A potential 2-0 score by Podolski was called off after Gotoku Sakai was narrowly ruled offside, but Kashima never quite looked up to the task of equalizing.

Fujimoto was again in the right place at the right time in the 38th minute, when a cross into the box from former Antlers man Daigo Nishi slipped through Inukai’s feet, off Fujimoto’s shin and into the net.

Referee Ryuji Sato struggled to control the remainder of the first half as the two sides traded an increasingly intense series of fouls, but he did not reach into his pocket for a card before whistling for halftime.

Vissel held on in the second half as Kashima attempted but failed to narrow the gap, with Brazilian talisman Leo Silva creating the Ibaraki Prefecture side’s best chances but struggling to put the ball on target.

“The first half was incredibly good. It was important to score when we did,” said Fink. “Antlers changed to three backs in the second half and caused us problems. But I’m very satisfied to have won 2-0.”

Kashima fell short for just the third time in eight Emperor’s Cup final appearances, failing to win any trophies in a season for the first time since the 2014 campaign.

It was a bitter farewell for Antlers manager Go Oiwa, whose departure after 2 1/2 seasons was announced last month despite a third straight top-three finish in the J1 and the club’s first ACL title in 2018.

“I’ve experienced the joy of winning this tournament as a player and I hope the players will use today’s disappointment as fuel next season,” said Oiwa, who captured the Emperor’s Cup twice each with Antlers and Nagoya Grampus during his 16-year career as a defender.

“My managerial career started midseason at a big club (Antlers). I felt a lot of pressure and wanted to fulfill my responsibility. It wasn’t all good times, but winning the ACL was a big turning point for the club and me personally.”

In its inaugural ACL campaign, Kobe will join South Korea’s Suwon Bluewings, China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, and Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim in Group G, which begins play on Feb. 12.

J. League champion Yokohama F. Marinos has also qualified directly into the group stage, while both Kashima and FC Tokyo will have to secure their places through a playoff on Jan. 28.

Marinos and Vissel will meet in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup on Feb. 8 at Saitama Stadium.

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