Kawasaki re­tain league ti­tle

Pace-set­ters San­frecce have to set­tle for sec­ond place

World Soccer - - Contents - MIKE PLASTOW

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

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