• Kyodo

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In a season of challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, J. League first-division champion Kawasaki Frontale charted a blueprint for victory using the unprecedented conditions to their advantage, captain Shogo Taniguchi said.

Frontale, who claimed their third J1 title with an emphatic 5-0 win Wednesday against second-place Gamba Osaka at Todoroki Stadium, won the race to the championship faster than any team under the league’s current 34-game format, finishing with four rounds to spare.

Their first match following the league’s roughly four-month suspension due to the coronavirus was a turning point in the season, according to 29-year-old center-back Taniguchi.

The 2-1 home victory against Kashima Antlers on July 4 revealed the potential to capitalize on the increase in substitutes allowed per game, from three to five, aimed at mitigating the impact of the heavily condensed schedule following the break.

“As we defended a one-goal lead, I remember being put under pressure by our opponents as they brought on one attacker after another. It made me realize the possibilities with five substitutes under the special rules,” Taniguchi said.

“It would give us the ability to overwhelm opponents by attacking non-stop for 90 minutes.”

Determined to overcome the disappointment of the previous season, when Kawasaki’s bid for a third-straight title petered out to a fourth-place finish, Taniguchi met with manager Toru Oniki.

“After our pre-match practice, I shared my thoughts with the manager. Though it would be a different approach to the one we had been using, he seemed to have the same idea,” Taniguchi said.

“We would look to attack without ever taking our foot off the pedal. It was a big change that everyone on the team bought into. Given a squad with so many talented attacking players, it made sense.”

The ensuing results have been a testament to the success of the strategy. Employing a 4-3-3 formation with a trio of forwards, Kawasaki have racked up 79 goals so far this season, by far the most in the division, while also conceding the fewest with 25.

Their point total of 75 is already a record under the current format, having surpassed the old mark of 74 set by Sanfrecce Hiroshima and later matched by Urawa Reds.

The impending retirement of one of the club’s greats, 40-year-old midfielder Kengo Nakamura, provided a further boost of motivation for him and the squad, according to Taniguchi.

“He told me of his intention to retire (at the end of the season) in late October when we were alone. I was surprised, but he was resolute about the decision,” Taniguchi said.

“I told Kengo-san he had been my role model. He told me I will have to follow in his steps and lead by example after he has gone. (But) we still have more time left playing together. I want to see him lift the Emperor’s Cup.”

This year’s Emperor’s Cup, abbreviated because of the coronavirus, will feature only the top two teams from the J1, who will join the tournament from the semifinals.

While Kawasaki will aim to raise the trophy for the first time, they also have their eye on the bigger prize of continental glory.

Having established his club as the powerhouse of Japanese soccer since taking the reins in 2017, Oniki has expressed a strong desire for Kawasaki to win the Asian Champions League in his fifth season at the helm next year.

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