Kashima's J. League joy
For the third year running, the J. League Division 1 title was decided on the last weekend of the season. Kashima Antlers secured the championship on 1 December thanks to an emphatic 3-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse coupled with Asian Champions Urawa Reds' shock 1-0 defeat to bottom club Yokohama FC. The J. League season ended in dramatic style, with the Antlers running off nine consecutive victories and frontrunners Urawa and Gamba Osaka both suffering surprising collapses.
For their part, the Reds spurned several chances to wrap up the title, none more so than on the penultimate matchday when they faced Kashima. With 62,241 expectant home fans packed into Saitama Stadium on 24 November, Urawa looked poised to clinch their second straight league crown with a win over the Antlers, who, then four points behind, appeared to have little chance of wresting the championship from their rivals.
With the spirited home supporters urging them on, Urawa looked to be in a great position when Kashima defender Toru Araiba was sent off in the 42nd minute. The Antlers continued to play with purpose, however, and a goal from midfielder Takuya Nozawa closed the gap to one point and handed them the initiative.
Even after this reverse, the tired Reds could still have come away with the title with a last-day win over lowly Yokohama FC, whose relegation fate this season was sealed in record time. Confidence was at a premium, though, as the club had suffered a debilitating run of injuries and poor performances since overcoming Iran's Sepahan to win the 2007 AFC Champions League. On top of an 18 November draw against Shimizu, the loss to Kashima and an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Division 2 club Ehime FC in the Emperor's Cup three days earlier, many key players were struggling for fitness.
Urawa's bad fortune continued as they ran into a highly-motivated Yokohama side. Led by influential veterans, the bottom-placed club were determined to end their season on a high. Setting out to attack from the off, they broke through in the 17th minute when striker Kazuyoshi Miura's superb cross from the left found Shingo Nejime. In the second half, Urawa threw less-than-fully-fit Japanese internationals Tatsuya Tanaka and Shinji Ono into the mix and sent men forward in waves, but Yokohama's defence held firm to clinch the team's first win in 21 matches.
Meanwhile, over at Kashima Soccer Stadium, the Antlers faced what on paper looked like a more formidable task against fourth-placed side Shimizu S-Pulse. The result was rarely in doubt, however, after a foul on Brazilian striker Marquinhos allowed Mitsuo Ogasawara to slot home from the penalty spot just 20 minutes in. A spectacular long-range effort from midfielder Masashi Motoyama three minutes into the second half and a third from Marquinhos on the counter in the 58th minute allowed Kashima to run out 3-0 winners and snatch the title from under their rivals' noses.
As for the final standings, the Antlers finished on 72 points, followed by the Reds on 70, while third on 67 were Gamba Osaka, who had led the league until August and remained well in touch through the start of November. After winning the Nabisco Cup on 3 November, however, their form took a turn for the worse, and they officially bowed out of the title race after conceding an injury time equalizer to Vissel Kobe on the penultimate matchday.
While Urawa and Osaka will be disappointed with their late collapses, the dramatic manner in which Kashima overcame a ten-point deficit to take the title will be remembered for many years. By topping the J. League standings for the first time since 2001, the Antlers picked up their fifth league championship and tenth major trophy. And that was not their only historic achievement this season - their 24 November win over Urawa was their 300th victory in a league match.
As the final whistle blew on Saturday and news came across that the Reds had been upset by Yokohama FC, jubilant celebrations erupted with Brazilian head coach Oswaldo Oliveira rushing on to the field to embrace his players. Key midfielder Ogasawara, whose return to Kashima in July after a stint with Serie A side Messina played an important role in the Antlers' rise to the top, then spoke of his joy at winning the championship: "This was the result of everyone working hard. I'm just thrilled. Coming back from Italy, of course, I was looking to win it all. It really was worth my while coming to play here again."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the J. League table, 16th-place Sanfrecce Hiroshima will contest a two-leg playoff with Division 2 third-place side Kyoto Sanga on 5 and 8 December for the right to appear in the top flight next year. In addition to bottom club Yokohama FC, 17th place Ventforet Kofu were also relegated, while Division 2 winners Consadole Sapporo and runners-up Tokyo Verdy gained promotion. J1 top scorer honours went to Kawasaki Frontale's Brazilian striker Juninho, who netted 22 times in 31 appearances.