Saitama – Nagoya Grampus glimpsed the mountaintop nine times before.
On Saturday they finally stood atop it, filling a longstanding void in the team’s trophy case with a 2-0 win over Cerezo Osaka in the J. League YBC Levain Cup final.
Goals by Naoki Maeda and Sho Inagaki were the difference-makers at Saitama Stadium, which hosted a crowd of 17,933 — among the largest seen in the J. League this season due to coronavirus-related attendance restrictions.
“I’m glad we could experience something we’d never done before,” Grampus captain Shinnosuke Nakatani said. “My heart was pounding until we scored the second goal.”
The final was Nagoya’s first after nine previous semifinal exits dating back to 1992 — when the tournament, then known as the Nabisco Cup, served as a preamble to the launch of the J. League the following spring. Cerezo had tasted success far more recently, defeating Kawasaki Frontale in the 2017 edition.
Saturday marked the teams’ second meeting this week after Cerezo breezing to a 3-0 win in Wednesday’s Emperor’s Cup quarterfinal. Nagoya had the additional burden of a team-wide bubble implemented after its Oct. 17 Asian Champions League defeat to Pohang Steelers in South Korea.
The fans, half of whom occupied seats reserved for those with proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test, patiently endured a defensive first half that featured only a handful of opportunities for either side.
Fireworks finally flew at the start of the second half, when a Grampus corner kick was deflected by midfielder Yoichiro Kakitani right into the path of a diving Maeda, who could not miss from a meter in front of the goal line.
“At the end of the first half we were under a lot of pressure, and it was good to score as early as we did in the second half because it gave us energy,” Grampus manager Massimo Ficcadenti said.
Nagoya’s defensive formation — four at the back, at times complemented by two or three additional bodies — had little problem containing Cerezo’s promising attack, with midfielders Tatsuhiro Sakamoto and Takashi Inui completely neutralized.
Osaka showed signs of life when veteran striker Yoshito Okubo came on in the 55th minute, but the former golden boot winner saw several good chances go wide.
Inagaki put the game away in the 79th minute when he pounced on a rebound after Polish forward Jakub Swierczok’s effort was parried away by Cerezo netminder Kim Jin-hyeon. The goal was enough to convince voters to name the one-time Japan international as the game’s most valuable player.
“We stuck it out together as a team, and we were able to move the game into the direction we wanted, and all of that went into that goal,” Inagaki said.
“The Emperor’s Cup loss was very disappointing but our fans kept clapping for us until the end on Wednesday, and I felt like I had to give them something back.”
Nagoya’s clean sheet was a fitting tribute to the catenaccio-inspired tactics of Ficcadenti, who claimed his first silverware in eight years of coaching in Japan.
The Italian, who will have extra reason to celebrate his 54th birthday next weekend, spent two seasons at FC Tokyo and nearly three at Sagan Tosu before replacing Yahiro Kazama at Nagoya in September 2019, turning the team’s fortunes around in the pandemic-struck 2020 season with a third-place finish and qualification for the ACL.
“When I left for Japan, other managers in Italy wondered what I was doing, but I never regretted it or thought I was making the wrong decision,” Ficcadenti said.
“More than talking about the game itself, I want to enjoy the feeling of winning the title.”
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