Urawa's Saitama Stadium is the setting for this showdown between two fierce rivals - the Urawa Reds from eastern Japan, and Gamba from the western city of Osaka.
This season, the Reds have already broken the J-League's overall home attendance record, and their fervent fans can almost taste the triumph they have been longing for since the league was formed in 1993. Now, all that is standing between them and celebration are 2005 champions Gamba.
The last day of the 2005 season was nothing if not dramatic, with an incredible five teams still in with a shout of winning the title at kick-off time. After an extraordinary day's play, Gamba emerged victors, finishing one point ahead of the Reds, who had to settle for second despite a 4-0 final day win over Albirex Niigata. In Urawa, memories of last year's disappointment are still fresh, making Saturday's rematch the perfect opportunity to gain swift revenge on the defending champions.
The Reds had a great opportunity to wrap up the championship when they played FC Tokyo last Sunday . A win would have done the job, and even a draw or loss might have sufficed depending on the result of Gamba's game being played at the same time.
In the end, the Reds were held to a scoreless draw, but it looked to be good enough with the Osaka outfit drawing 2-2 with Kyoto Purple Sanga going into stoppage time. Then with just seconds remaining, Gamba conjured up a last-gasp strike to win 3-2, the goal coming from hat-trick hero Magno Alves, who moved one ahead of the Reds' Washington at the top of the goalscoring charts (25) in the process.
Even so, the Reds are firmly in the driving seat for the match on Saturday. Boasting 69 points and a plus-38 goal difference, compared to their opponent's 66 and plus-33, the only way Gamba can reclaim the championship is by beating the league leaders by three goals or more. If that were not a tall enough order, Gamba have two other obstacles to overcome. Firstly, the Reds are on a record-breaking unbeaten run at home and have not lost by a three-goal margin to any side this season. Secondly, they will have to do it in front of blood-red stands heaving with Reds fans roaring their side on to victory. All things considered, the odds seem heavily stacked in the home side's favour.
Though Gamba face a truly Herculean task in their bid to retain the title, they will take heart from the dramatic victory last weekend which kept them in the race. Captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto set the tone with his comments after the game: "It won't be easy for us to win the league title on the last day of the season, but it's great to know that we can go into the game with a chance. I'll be focusing on all the positive aspects of the challenge." His view was echoed by his team-mates, many of whom spoke of being "thrilled to have made it through to a final showdown".
Urawa wary of Alves threat
The Reds use a bold pressing game to great effect, and having only conceded 26 goals in 33 league games, their tactics bear out the old maxim that attack is the best form of defence.
They battle in the middle of the park, then launch wave after wave of swift and dangerous attacks. Conjuring up chances from behind the front line this season are Nobuhisa Yamada and Ponte, with the ruthless Washington the principal beneficiary. In addition, the back line, marshalled expertly by Marcus Tulio Tanaka, are not averse to pushing up in search of a loose ball or rebound.
Yet even when opponents manage to break through the heavily policed Reds' midfield, they still have to deal with two of Japan's best defenders in Tanaka and Nene. Also adding steel to the Urawa defence is midfielder Keita Suzuki, a fiercely dedicated ball-winner, making it no easy feat for opponents to get a clear sight of goal. Knowing that no worse than a two-goal defeat will clinch them the championship on Saturday, Urawa can be expected to get men behind the ball for the duration of the game.
Gamba's task, meanwhile, will be to break that stubborn resistance, and the man to do it may well be Magno Alves, who ended talk of a late-season dip in form with last weekend's crucial hat-trick. The visitors can also expect a boost if busy striker Ryuji Bando recovers from injury in time. In full flow, Gamba's attack can be nigh-on irresistible, but much will depend on the playmaking skills of Takahiro Futagawa. However, the Blues know that one mistake at the back could end their title aspirations, making it all the more crucial for flying wing-back Akira Kaji and midfielder Tomokazu Myojin to strike the perfect balance between attack and defence.
Despite winning last year's J-League title, the first in the club's history, Gamba heavily reinforced their squad before the start of this season. Urawa Reds also made some interesting acquisitions and took the season's first silverware with victory in the Emperor's Cup on New Year's Day.
This year their first meeting came in the Xerox Super Cup, a pre-season match between the Emperor's Cup winners and the league champions, with the Reds prevailing 3-1. The very next week they came face to face in Osaka on the opening day of the J1 season, but this time it ended with honours even (1-1).
In total, the pair have crossed swords 31 times in the J-League, with the Reds holding a slight advantage (14 wins, 12 defeats and 5 draws), in what is becoming an increasingly intense rivalry.
Nine months on from that opening day draw on 4 March, the stage is set for a thrilling climax to the season as Red meet Blue and East takes on West. Will it result in a a first J1 title for Urawa, or back-to-back championships for Gamba? Either way, it is shaping up to be a classic encounter - exactly what the J-League does best.