Saitama – The 13,318 fans in attendance at the Emperor’s Cup final between Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka on New Year’s Day witnessed a cagey affair between two teams pushed to the limit over the course of the pandemic-plagued 2020 J. League season.
The 4,208 fans watching the same two teams at Saturday’s Fuji Xerox Super Cup received a bit more bang for their buck.
Frontale’s Yu Kobayashi scored the 3-2 winner on the last play of the game, salvaging a match that seemed destined for penalty kicks after the reigning J. League champion wasted Kaoru Mitoma’s first-half brace to see Gamba claw back into the game on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Saitama Stadium.
“I would have liked to see that third goal earlier,” Kawasaki manager Toru Oniki said after the game. “The players worked hard. We’re the kind of team that doesn’t give up until the end.”
After a narrow 1-0 defeat on Jan. 1, fans might have expected a largely unchanged Gamba side to mount a stronger challenge against Frontale, which lost one-club legend Kengo Nakamura to retirement and midfielder Hidemasa Morita to an overseas move to Portugal.
Easier said than done, despite a phenomenal effort between the posts by Osaka goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.
"We did what we were trying to do but Frontale had a lot of great plays on both offense and defense," Gamba midfielder Shinya Yajima said. "It's good that we were able to equalize, but in the end we lost and I again sensed the gap between us and them."
With winter arrival Joao Schmidt — formerly of Nagoya Grampus — slotting in as a central midfielder, Kawasaki came out of the gates with the same brand of pass-heavy attacking that saw it finish the 2020 campaign with a modern league-record 83 points and plus-57 goal difference.
After a number of early Frontale efforts were either stymied by Higashiguchi or sent wide, the first goal of the season came from who else but Kaoru Mitoma, last year’s rookie sensation who finished behind Kashiwa Reysol striker Michael Olunga in MVP voting. The wily midfielder opened scoring in the 29th on a short pass from fellow youngster Ao Tanaka, cutting in from the left side before burying the ball into the back of the net.
Mitoma netted his second just three minutes later when he happened to be in perfect position to deflect defender’s Miki Yamane’s volley from point-blank range. The goal was reviewed for offsides and subsequently upheld by the video assistant referee, which will be used for the 2021 season after its 2020 debut was postponed in the wake of the pandemic.
Gamba's players came out of the halftime locker room eager to avenge themselves, and a shaky Frontale defense provided them with plenty of opportunities.
"Frontale's first goal put us in a bad mental state for the rest of the half," Gamba manager Tsuneyasu Miyamoto said. "Heading into the second half, we needed to improve our defensive positioning, create more time with the ball and get more players into the penalty area."
Yajima made it 2-1 just before the hour mark, capitalizing on a failed clearance with a left-footed bullet. Soon after, a Yamane handball in the penalty area gave Patric the opportunity to tie the game up at 2-2 as he coolly converted his attempt.
As the seconds ticked down to a seemingly inevitable penalty shootout, Kobayashi saved the day for the reigning double champion, deftly receiving Daiya Tono’s through pass behind the Gamba back line before catching Higashiguchi flat-footed from just a couple meters inside the penalty area.
“Once the ball came from Tono, I was able to aim it well,” Kobayashi said. “If we’d gone to PKs it would have put a lot of responsibility on our players, so it was a really good goal.”
Frontale’s Koki Tsukagawa, who came on in the 64th minute, became the league’s first concussion substitute early in stoppage time. The J. League instituted the new rule, which allows teams one extra substitute if a player is suspected of suffering a head injury, ahead of the 2021 season.
With Japan’s ongoing state of emergency declaration still in effect for Saitama as well as the home prefectures of both clubs, attendance had been capped at just 5,000 fans and many of the usual hallmarks of the Super Cup, including food stalls from the league's 50-plus team's home grounds and the annual gathering of club mascots, were absent from Saitama Stadium.
Clubs affected by the state of emergency, which is scheduled to end on March 7 but may be lifted earlier in some prefectures, will face similar restrictions on attendance and be forced to kick off home games no later than 6 p.m.
The J. League season will kick off on Feb. 26 when Frontale hosts Kanagawa Prefecture rival Yokohama F. Marinos at Todoroki Stadium.
Eriko Yamakuma contributed to this report
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