FC Tokyo claimed its first major trophy in nine years with a 2-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol in Monday’s Levain Cup final, bringing the 2020 J. League season to an explosive finish through goals by Brazilian attackers Leandro and Adailton.
The result at the new National Stadium was a fitting reward for Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa, who has revitalized his side into an attacking dynamo over the last three years but had fallen short in terms of filling the club’s trophy cabinet, which was last opened for the 2011 Emperor’s Cup.
“If you don’t win titles you can’t collect them, it’s like money. By getting one it will be easier to get more,” Hasegawa said. “As a player (at Shimizu S-Pulse in 1996), and as a manager at Gamba Osaka (in 2014), the J. League Cup was the first title I won, so I feel a connection to it.”
Both teams entered the day unbeaten in J. League Cup finals, with Tokyo lifting the trophy in 2004 and ’09 and Kashiwa doing the same in 1999 and 2013, the latter under current manager Nelsinho Baltista during his first stint at the club.
The game — originally scheduled for Nov. 7 before a COVID-19 cluster infection within the Reysol camp forced a postponement by the league — took place in front of a sold-out crowd of 24,219 who were allowed to attend despite a rising number of new coronavirus cases in the Tokyo area and a potential state of emergency declaration later in the week.
The physically distanced spectators — who numbered over 10,000 greater than those who attended Friday’s Emperor’s Cup final at the same location — filled out the three levels of the stadium that is scheduled to serve as the centerpiece of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics later this year.
While fans were still prohibited from cheering in order to prevent potential transmission of the virus, the color in the stands and enthusiastic drumming from both sides were refreshing changes of pace from the empty seats that have featured in most J. League games this season.
“Despite fears of infections spreading, nobody was forced to leave because of high temperatures and nobody was taken to the medics,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said. “The fans followed our guidelines for active support. The match was broadcast internationally in English on our YouTube channel, and I think everyone was able to see our supporting style.”
After enduring a grueling campaign that saw the team play many of its November and December league fixtures early in order to participate in the bio-secure Qatari bubble of the Asian Champions League, Tokyo entered Monday without three key players — talismanic striker Diego Oliveira, attacking midfielder Kyosuke Tagawa and central midfielder Yojiro Takahagi.
"There were a lot of players who couldn't be here today and we wanted to win for them," said Tokyo talisman Leandro, who was named the tournament's most valuable player.
Replacing Takahagi in midfield was former captain and Samurai Blue center back Masato Morishige, who has shifted to the new role in recent games as Lebanese defender Joan Oumari has filled in at the back.
“In the ACL we converted Morishige to an anchor, and after that we stabilized and played more calmly,” Hasegawa said. “It was important that he got more experience playing there in the last two games of the J1.”
Reysol’s target man from the start was Kenya international Michael Olunga, who last month became the J. League’s first MVP from Africa. The 193-cm striker attempted to find the back of the net via headers in the first half, but all of his efforts went wide.
Leandro sent the south end of the stadium into a brief frenzy when he cut in and snuck a right-footed shot just inside the far post before galloping back to the sideline to embrace his teammates.
Kashiwa managed to tie it up before halftime when Tokyo goalkeeper Go Hatano — blocked partially by Reysol captain Hidekazu Otani — miffed his attempt to punch out the ball on a set play, with Kashiwa midfielder Yusuke Segawa sliding in to score from close range.
“We started the game as we planned. In the first half when Tokyo attacked, it was through counters that came from our mistakes,” reflected Nelsinho. “After they scored we were able to play at our pace until halftime.”
Defender Takumi Ominami nearly became the hero for Reysol in the 59th minute when his shot from distance inched just over the bar, ending a sustained period of pressure on the Tokyo goal.
On the other side of the pitch, Leandro narrowly missed a chance to put Tokyo back ahead in the 66th minute after his free kick from just outside the penalty arc struck the crossbar before heading out of bounds.
An attack-minded substitution made shortly after by Hasegawa paid off minutes later when Adailton, who relieved Tokyo captain Keigo Higashi, floated a shot past Kim Seung-gyu to give Tokyo the 2-1 lead.
Reysol was unable to find an equalizer in the remaining 20 minutes, testing Hatano but rarely threatening him as the clapping of Tokyo supporters grew louder late into the afternoon.
“Tokyo has a lot of fast players with good technique, so we couldn’t keep up and fell behind,” said Nelsinho. “We tried to equalize and force extra time, but the clock ran out for us.”
Monday’s final brought to an end the J. League campaign that began on Feb. 16 with the start of the Levain Cup’s group stage. Following the league’s suspension in late February due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the tournament’s group stage was shortened and the knockout stage was similarly compressed into single-legged quarterfinals and semifinals.
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