Kashima Antlers staked their claim to be J.League’s best team of all time by winning an unprecedented third title in a row. And again they let the championship race continue to the very last day.
Kawasaki Frontale once more had to make do with the supporting role – they finished runners-up for the third time in four years – and it clearly hurt.
The observation that Frontale will crack under pressure was confirmed by their 2-0 defeat to Tokyo in the League Cup Final, by their failure against mid-table Nagoya Grampus in the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League and by their defeat to J2 champions Vegalta Sendai in the Emperor’s Cup quarter-finals. A season that had promised so much produced nothing for a club that has yet to win anything aside from J2 (twice) and manager Takashi Sekizuka left at the end of the season after turning down the offer of a new contract.
It was not as though Antlers did not slip too, though. They roared to the title with five straight wins at the finish but were on a run of five straight losses and a draw before that. However, Antlers were better than ever in the first half of the year, racing to eight consecutive wins in an unbeaten run of 17 league games. But, by October, Shimizu S-Pulse had gone top for the first time in a decade. Frontale then took over and recorded their biggest ever league win – 7-0 at home to fellow challengers Sanfrecce Hiroshima – only to crumble soon after to strugglers Oita Trinita.
At the end of the drama, it was Antlers as usual. The crucial match was the second to last game at home to resurgent Gamba Osaka, who had trailed Antlers by 19 points in mid-season but now stood to rise above them on goal difference if they won. Antlers duly crushed Gamba 5-1 and carried on to secure their historic seventh championship with a 1-0 win against Urawa Red Diamonds in a packed Saitama Stadium.
Why do Antlers do it this way?
“We don’t do it to make the league more interesting,” says Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira. “We always fight to win and it’s not just our loss of form, you have to give credit to the other teams who work to block our strengths.”
Oliveira suggests that the J.League’s near universal inconsistency is due to the fact that there is so little difference between the teams, week after week, and also the crowded schedule. How did Antlers recover to win yet again? “By not giving up,” said Oliveira. “And Ogasawara.”
Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara may be out of favour with national team manager Takeshi Okada but he again made a huge mark in the league. “It would be a tragedy if Ogasawara watches this year’s World Cup on TV,” says Oliveira. “There are many fine players in the national team, but none as good as Ogasawara.”
Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata finished as top scorer with twenty goals, while Kazuma Watanabe of Yokohama F-Marinos set a new record of 13 goals in his debut year – beating Shoji Jo’s 12 goals in 1994.
There were also spectacular debut seasons for defensive midfielder Takuji Yonemoto of Tokyo, who won the man of the match award in the League Cup Final, and Urawa Reds’ teenage prodigy Naoki Yamada, who made his Japan debut before his season was disrupted by injury. Jubilo Iwata striker Masashi Nakayama set a seniority record with an appearance from the bench at the age of 42 years, 2 months and 5 days. He has now left Iwata this season but still plans to find another team.
The J. League’s rapid expansion continues with the addition of one new team next season, Giravanz Kitakyushu, bringing the two divisions’ total to thirty seven. The anticipated financial strains, however, also surfaced as sponsorship revenues fell in the wake of the global financial crisis. Oita Trinita had to be rescued by a huge loan from the league and Tokyo Verdy were on the brink of expulsion before sufficient sponsorship revenue was secured at the 11th hour.
The fact that the league had its first all-Japanese Best XI and its first Japanese top scorer since Naohiro Takahara in 2002, may not be wholly unrelated to those funding strains.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers)
Led Antlers to a record third straight championship – but can the J.League’s Player of the Year also make it to his third World Cup? He has not played for Japan since 2006.
COACH OF THE SEASON
Oswaldo Oliveira (Kashima Antlers)
Made J.League history by winning his third championship in only his third year in Japan.
NEWCOMER OF THE SEASON
Genki Haraguchi (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Only Yuki Abe and Edmilson played more league games for Reds last season than this teenager, who made a strong impact not only in midfield but as an auxiliary striker as well.