Kawasaki – After winning their first title on the dramatic final day of the 2017 season and clinching their second with two rounds to spare a year later, Kawasaki Frontale did the impossible on Wednesday night: They made their third title look even easier.
An Akihiro Ienaga hat trick and goal from Leandro Damiao and Manabu Saito were more than enough for Frontale to defeat their last remaining rival Gamba Osaka 5-0 at Kawasaki’s Todoroki Stadium, extending their lead on top of the J. League first-division table to an unassailable 17 points with four rounds left in the season.
Although Gamba’s chances at coming from behind to win the title were already slim — they would have had to run the table and have Frontale lose all of their remaining games — any hopes of achieving their own historic third title were all but extinguished in the 22nd minute when Damiao slipped through the Gamba back line and stretched out his leg to meet Kyohei Noborizato’s cross from behind.
“In the last game we lost to Oita and it was disappointing, but I’m glad we could win at home in front of such a big crowd tonight,” Frontale manager Toru Oniki said, earning applause from the 11,370 fans in attendance. “The players are focused on winning the title from the first round. I think you saw that on the pitch today.”
Ienaga made it 2-0 just before halftime with a close-range strike, assisted by Damiao’s header off an Ao Tanaka corner kick. The 2018 J. League MVP, who began his career at Gamba and spent another year there on loan from Spain’s Mallorca in 2012-13, netted his second of the night just four minutes into the second half after being left virtually unmarked during a counter.
The 34-year-old completed his personal treble in the 73rd minute, easily beating Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi on a low cross from Kaoru Mitoma.
“I don’t want today to end, that’s how happy I am,” Ienaga said. “It’s been hard this year, not just for us the pitch but for everyone. Despite that, so many people have supported us and I’m grateful for that. I hope we can keep everyone smiling.”
In an unprecedented campaign held amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Frontale’s flashy attack was one of the few things that remained unchanged from previous years. One of the J. League’s deepest rosters flourished under emergency regulations allowing up to five substitutions in a match, with most of rookie and strong MVP candidate Mitoma’s 12 goals and eight assists coming off the bench.
But the player fans were perhaps happiest to see on the pitch at the final whistle was Kengo Nakamura, the 40-year-old playmaker who recovered from ACL surgery to contribute to Frontale’s title run in his final season before retirement. The former Japan international will end his career with over 600 total appearances and 100 total goals for the only club he has ever called home.
“This is amazing, that’s all I can say,” Nakamura said. “This was so different from our first title (in 2017), but it was a Frontale-esque title.
“When the league restarted, Oniki told us that now more than ever was our time to lead Japanese soccer and win the title. If I hadn’t heard those words I might not have come this far.”
By reaching 75 points, Kawasaki broke the record of 74 set by Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2015 and matched by Urawa Reds in 2016. With four games left, Frontale can still reach 87 out of a possible 102 before the season ends on Dec. 19.
Gamba will still have plenty to play for, with second place and a spot in the Emperor’s Cup — as well as one of the J1’s three Asian Champions League berths — still on the line. Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s men sit just three points above Nagoya Grampus.
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