Kashima hang on in Japan
The 2008 edition of Japanese J.League proved another captivating affair, with the title race and relegation battle both fiercely competitive and a host of major clubs failing to meet expectations. Defending champions Kashima Antlers travelled to the already-relegated Consadole Sapporo on the final matchday, knowing a draw would secure them the crown. However, their 1-0 win was doubly satisfying, coming as it did in sharp contrast to last season, when a final-day slip-up by Urawa Reds handed them the title.
The Antlers' strength this year was their resilience, as illustrated by single-goal victories in their last three matches. After winning their first five games, their form dipped mid-campaign as their pursuit of a J.League and AFC Champions League double produced a succession of draws and defeats. Coach Oswaldo de Oliveira felt it was their "ability to win the big games" that got them through in the end. The Antlers have obvious quality throughout the side, though, with the competition's top scorer Marquinhos, young forward Shinzo Koroki, defender Daiki Iwamasa and midfield orchestrator Mitsuo Ogasawara.
Pushing the champions hard, while entertaining with the quality of their football, were Nagoya Grampus, one of the leading lights in the early days of the J.League. Much of the credit for the team's successful season goes to Serbian legend Dragan Stojkovic, who took over the coaching reins at his former club at the start of the campaign. Affectionately known as 'Pixie', his stylish play in the FIFA World Cup™ won him a host of fans and made him a household name. Despite taking his first foray into management, Stojkovic drew on his experience of playing under Arsene Wenger at Grampus in the mid-1990s, and unexpectedly had his side in contention for the title right up until the final day.
Clearly influenced by the current Arsenal manager, Stojkovic opted for an attacking 4-4-2 formation that paid dividends with an impressive points-haul away from home. Indeed, the highlight of the club's season was their memorable 2-1 triumph at the home of Urawa Reds - their first win there since the J.League's foundation. Despite missing out on the runners-up spot to Kawasaki Frontale, Grampus finished a credible third, earning them a berth in the AFC Champions League 2009.
This season's surprise package were undoubtedly Oita Trinita. The team's counter-attacking style was a thrilling sight this term, which began with players speaking only of their determination to avoid relegation. Ultimately, this proved a very modest target, with the club finishing the year in fourth, ahead of several of Japanese giants, much to the credit of Brazilian coach Pericles Chamusca. And to cap a memorable season, Trinita also clinched the Nabisco Cup - the first major trophy ever earned by a Kyushu outfit.
Aside from the championship race and relegation battle, many column inches were devoted to the downturn in fortunes of Urawa Reds, who finished third at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. The signs were ominous, however, when the Reds fired their German coach, Holder Osijek, after just two games, and they would end the season in seventh, failing to pick up a trophy for the first time since 2002.
Another club unable to match their 2007 league form were Asian champions Gamba Osaka, who failed to build any momentum and finished down in eighth. Yokohama F. Marinos, a club with history going back to the amateur leagues in Japan, also disappointed, although crucially avoided the drop.
Less fortunate were Tokyo Verdy and Consadole Sapporo, who could find no way out of the automatic relegation berths. In the final action of the J.League season, former heavyweights Jubilo Iwata maintained their top-flight status after a two-legged promotion/relegation play-off against Velgata Sendai, who had finished third in the second flight.
Champions: Kashima Antlers
Runners-up: Kawasaki Frontale
Third place: Nagoya Grampus
Relegated to J2
18th: Consadole Sapporo
J1 Top Player
Marquinhos (Kashima Antlers)
J1 Top Scorer
Marquinhos (Kashima Antlers - 21goals in 30 games)
J1 Best Coach
Oswaldo Oliveira (Kashima Antlers)