Kawasaki retain league title
Pace-setters Sanfrecce have to settle for second place
Gritty Kawasaki Frontale once again fought back from behind to retain the J.League title with two games to spare and a 12point lead by the finish. For much of the campaign it looked as if nobody was going to catch early leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima, only for Kawasaki to run away with the championship at the last.
“We had a hard time at the start,” said Kawasaki manager Toru Oniki. “But the players never wavered. Our theme this season was to hold our shape and that is exactly what we did all season.
“I am relieved and very pleased that our consistency brought this result in the end.”
Ever-present veteran Kengo Nakamura was again inspirational in midfield for a Kawasaki side that had the tightest defence in the league. The rapid pressing, swift counter attacks and sharp, rhythmical passing kept the pressure high all game and all season long.
Sanfrecce, who only avoided relegation by a single point in 2017, made all of the early running under new boss Hiroshi Jofuku, staying top for six months.
The turning point came in August when Kawasaki, still nine points behind in second place, fought back to win 2-1 in Hiroshima. Brazilian striker Patric gave the hosts the lead but Kawasaki skipper Yu Kobayashi scored twice to keep his team in the race. Sanfrecce didn’t collapse immediately, winning their next two games, but then everything went wrong as they took just one point from the next seven games.
The championship had become a two-horse race by September as Tokyo, Cerezo Osaka, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Vissel Kobe all dropped out of contention. Kawasaki overtook Sanfrecce on goal difference with six games to go and clinched the title on November 10 – the same day Kashima Antlers won the AFC Champions League.
A tight battle for the third automatic Champions League spot was won by the new Asian champions, who improved steadily throughout the second half of the season and will therefore – unlike 2017 winners Urawa Red Diamonds this term – be able to defend their continental title next season.
Urawa will be back in Asian action next term
after securing Japan’s fourth and final Champions League slot with a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai in the Emperor’s Cup Final. Urawa started the season weakly with no wins in their first five league games and sacked Champions League winning-manager Takafumi Hori in April. Their form recovered steadily under former Kashima boss Oswaldo de Oliveira; too late to challenge for the league but just in time for the cup.
It was a best-ever season for Sapporo under Mihailo Petrovic. Though never in the title race, they finished fourth, with Thai attacking midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin especially impressive.
The season was notable, too, for the arrival of some big-name players from abroad, with Andres Iniesta at Kobe and Fernando Torres at Sagan Tosu leading the way.
But while the fanfares were loud, the results were disappointing. Tosu, already caught up in a relegation battle, remained that way until the end of the season and only stayed up on goal difference as the third of five teams tied on 41 points.
Kobe were sixth when Iniesta arrived, 15 points behind leaders Sanfrecce but still hoping to qualify for the 2019 Asian Champions League. But for all his brilliance, the side lost its way after he arrived to the point of even toying with relegation. Kobe have announced the addition of David Villa next season to join up with Iniesta and Lukas Podolski.
V-Varen Nagasaki and Kashiwa Reysol filled the bottom two automatic relegation spots and will be replaced by J2 champions Matsumoto Yamaga and runners-up Oita Trinita next season. Third from bottom Jubilo Iwata stayed up thanks to a 2-0 win against Tokyo Verdy in the play-off.
Low-budget Shonan Bellmare celebrated their most recent return to top-flight football with a first major J.League trophy, the J.League Cup, beating near neighbours Yokohama F.Marinos 1-0 in the Final.
It was their first major trophy of any description since the AFC Cup-winners Cup in the days of Hidetoshi Nakata in 1995. That didn’t spare them their perennial relegation battle, but their positive football was a joy to watch all season and they stayed up on goal difference.
With the money from live sports streaming service DAZN now flowing to the clubs and the J.League changing its rules to allow five foreign players on the pitch instead of three, Japanese football enters 2019 with expectations rising higher than in a good many years.
Delight...Tatsuya Hasegawa of Kawasaki Frontale
Struggle...Andres Iniesta (left) in action for Vissel Kobe against Sagan Tosu