J. League champion Kawasaki Frontale lifted their fifth major trophy in four years on Friday, defeating Gamba Osaka 1-0 at Tokyo’s National Stadium to claim their first-ever Emperor’s Cup and round out their 2020 domestic double.
Frontale, known for years as Japanese soccer’s “silver collector” for their string of second-place finishes across domestic competitions, completed their silverware collection having won the J. League, Levain Cup, Super Cup and Emperor’s Cup in a four-season span between 2017-2020. Friday’s result came four years after Frontale’s first Emperor’s Cup final appearance ended in a defeat to Kashima Antlers.
“We aimed to win multiple titles this year, and the players did so incredibly well in the league that we didn’t want those results to be erased with the final result, so it was important for us to win,” Frontale manager Toru Oniki said. “It was a tough game but the players worked hard.”
While true “giant killing” upsets are rare in the Emperor’s Cup’s later rounds, this year’s final was all but predestined to finish in a matchup between Frontale and J1 runner-up Gamba.
In deference to the impact of the coronavirus on the J. League’s schedule, only the top two J1 sides as well as the second and third-division champions were given births in the tournament in the later rounds, while the earlier stages were contested by amateur teams. Frontale defeated J3 winner Blaublitz Akita in their semifinal, while Gamba dispatched J2 champions Tokushima Vortis to line up Friday’s fight card.
With temperatures topping out at 10 degrees at kickoff, the first half was a cagier affair than the 5-0 rout in late November that sealed Frontale’s third J1 title. Gamba striker Patric appeared to have scored in the sixth minute when he headed in Takashi Usami’s free kick, only for the linesman to judge the Brazilian offside.
“Our game plan was to focus on defending, force turnovers and attack,” said Gamba manager Tsuneyasu Miyamoto. “In the first half they pressured us and we spent more time on the defensive.”
Kaoru Mitoma, the 23-year-old rookie who played a starring role for Frontale in their J1 campaign and was named to the J. League’s Best XI, saw opportunities in the first half and finally found the back of the net in the 55th minute with a clever grounder past Gamba keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, who was otherwise virtually unbeatable.
Frontale netminder Jong Sung-ryong was forced to deliver some acrobatics of his own in the final minutes to avoid extra time. With the game still on the line heading into added time, Oniki used his final substitution slot to relieve midfielder Ryota Oshima with Yasuto Wakizaka rather than give a final curtain call to retiring playmaker and one-club legend Kengo Nakamura.
“I want to thank him for carrying this team,” Oniki said. “He didn’t play today, but everything he’s done has contributed to the titles we’ve won. We were able to win these titles because of him.”
Japan’s first large-scale sporting event of 2021 took place under the cloud of the new coronavirus, with Tokyo having reported over 1,300 infections on New Year’s Eve. As cases in the capital rose in December, the Japan Football Association canceled its planned general sale of tickets and said that roughly 16,000 tickets that had already been issued would still be valid.
Just 13,318 came through the gates on Friday, a far cry from the 57,597 that attended last year’s final between Vissel Kobe and Kashima.
Following successive one-two finishes in both the league and the Emperor’s Cup, Frontale and Gamba will meet again in the Feb. 20 Fuji Xerox Super Cup at Saitama Stadium. The two clubs have also booked group-stage berths in the 2021 Asian Champions League along with J1 third-place finisher Nagoya Grampus, with fourth-place Cerezo Osaka entering the continental competition from the playoff stage.
Japan’s professional soccer season will officially come to a close on Monday when Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo contest the final of the Levain Cup, which was originally scheduled to take place in early November before Reysol suffered a COVID-19 cluster infection within its squad.
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