Kashima Antlers created J.League history when they were crowned champions for the third straight season. FIFA.com profiles the winners and losers of the dramatic 2009 season in which the title race went down to the final round for the third season running.

Antlers held a two-point advantage over Kawasaki Frontale heading into the final round, but had the unenviable task of facing bitter rivals Urawa Red Diamonds away from home. Frontale had the easier opponents on paper in relegated Kashiwa Reysol, but their pulsating 3-2 win counted for little in the end as Kashima squeezed out a 1-0 victory to clinch a record seventh championship.

Inspirational captain Mitsuo Ogasawara was at the heart of Kashima’s victory, doing a masterly job of orchestrating his team’s defence from his midfield berth. It was Shinzo Koroki who scored the all-important goal from a diving header midway through the second half, but Ogasawara believes the whole team’s growing maturity was decisive: “Everybody knows what they have to do and when to do it. We’ve developed into a team that can grind out a win.”

Kashima’s blend of up-and-coming young players with veterans with overseas experience, such as defensive midfielder Koji Nakata, proved to be a recipe for success. Although the team displayed flair at times, Kashima were able to play more conservatively when the situation required. “Of course, we want to win by playing attractive football, but I’m glad we can adapt our tactics to suit each game,” added Ogasawara.

Everybody knows what they have to do and when to do it. We’ve developed into a team that can grind out a win.

Mitsuo Ogasawara, Kashima Antlers captain.

Frontale finished second for the second consecutive season, and will rue a costly defeat just as the title seemed within their grasp. Kawasaki possess one of the league’s most potent attacks in Korea DPR striker Jong Tae Se, Brazilian forward Juninho and creative linchpin Kengo Nakamura, and were atop the table with three rounds remaining. However, a 1-0 defeat against relegated Oita Trinita allowed Kashima to leapfrog them at the top of the table and, although Frontale won their final two games, Kashima remained just out of reach.

Despite letting the title slip and losing the Nabisco Cup final for the second time in three years, coach Takashi Sekizuka took plenty of positives from the season: “We were leading the league at one stage near the end, so this second place feels a little different from last season. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Asian Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo guided Osaka Gamba to third place. Gamba remained proponents of a stylish passing game that has won many admirers, but will look back at several games where they let vital points slip. Antlers, Frontale and Gamba have qualified for the AFC Champions League, with one more spot reserved for the winner of the Emperor’s Cup to be decided on January 1.

Hiroshima create a stir
Sanfrecce Hiroshima were the surprise package of 2009, finishing fourth in their first season back in the top tier. A core of young players such as attacking midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi, Japanese international forward Hisato Sato and midfielder Yojiro Takahagi turned plenty of heads with their high-tempo brand of football.

FC Tokyo improved one place from last year to fifth and also picked up the Nabisco Cup for the club’s second ever piece of silverware. Urawa Reds finished a disappointing sixth to go two seasons without winning a trophy, while Nagoya Grampus fell off the pace in the second half of the season after being knocked out in the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League and staggered home in ninth. Shimizu S-Pulse briefly surged into contention midway through the season, but ran out of steam and settled for seventh.

Going up, going down
Oita Trinita completed an unwanted turnaround by being relegated just one season after winning the Nabisco Cup. A small club that had held their own in J1 for six seasons, Trinita got off to a woeful start and never recovered, even after firing coach Pericles Chamusca mid-season.

The 2009 season was one the two Chiba Prefecture-based teams will want to forget. JEF United Ichihara Chiba were one of only six teams that had played in the top division every year since its 1993 inception, but will be joined in the second division next season by Kashiwa Reysol. Their spots in J1 will be taken by Vegalta Sendai, Cerezo Osaka and Shonan Bellmare. Giravanz Kitakyushu has been promoted to J2, which will have 19 teams next year.

And finally, Jubilo Iwata striker Ryoichi Maeda became the first Japanese player to finish as the division’s top scorer since Naohiro Takahara, now with Reds, did so in 2002. Maeda fired 20 goals in becoming the fifth Japanese to claim the accolade.