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The first round of this year's J.League Championship playoff series took place at Kawasaki's Todoroki Stadium, on Wednesday afternoon, and about the only surprise that the contest turned up was the discovery that Yoshito Okubo is actually a pretty emotional guy. The Frontale striker and current all-time J.League goals leader was reduced to tears after he and his fellow Blue Dolphins added to the very long list of Kawasaki choke jobs. Although they finished second in both stages of this year's stage campaigns (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "they failed to win either stage") the arcane regulations of J.League postseason play gave them not only a home field advantage over First Stage champions Kashima Antlers, but the added advantage of being able to progress to the final round against Urawa Reds even if the two teams finished on level terms after 90 minutes. Last year, the ever-popular Reds were knocked out of the playoffs by Gamba Osaka in overtime play, so this season the League apparently decided to stack the deck a bit more in favour of the home team, by inventing a rule that made a draw (at home) equivalent to a victory for Kawasaki.
Of course, long-time Frontale fans will understand that the team needed all the help it could get, having failed to win any silverware in the team's 20-year existence. Frontale has a long history of performing well over the course of a campaign (league or cup) but pulling up at the last hurdle with a bad case of esophageal constriction. When NT striker candidate Yu Hasegawa seized up in the 20th minute of play, and had to come off with a hamstring injury, well . . . let's just say that not too many people were surprised.
In retrospect, many will conclude that the double-advantage handed to Frontale in this playoff was actually a factor in their ultimate failure. Frontale has always been an attack-oriented team, and though their defense is much improved this season, they are still much more dangerous when they take the initiative and set out to outscore the opponent. Instead, it became clear from the very opening minutes of this contest that Frontale had placed top priority on preventing any goals by the Golden Herd of Ibaraki, and that they would be more than happy to advance to the final round with a scoreless draw.
The Antlers, on the other hand, did what championship teams usually do -- get the job done. After a disappointing second stage, it was nice to see Kashima playing effective football again. But as much as one might wish to expend praise on the winning team, the truth is that the Antlers were a secondary consideration in this contest. They did a very workmanlike job, pressured the ball well, and came away with the victory. . . . but that is just what J.League fans have come to expect from the Antlers. No, the main story of this contest would have to be the Blue Dolphins. Given the venue, the high expectations, and the lavish praise that the team has been receiving from media, NT coaches and J.League Awards Ceremony voters alike, this was always Frontale's game to lose. And that is exactly what they did.
As we have already hinted, the game plan that Kawasaki adopted from the outset was a surprisingly conservative one. Even before Kengo Nakamura was forced to come on in place of the injured Hasegawa, the home team was playing a defend-and-counter strategy. Kashima enjoyed a lot of possession over the opening 45 minutes, but neither team managed to seriously threaten the opposing goalkeeper. The two teams went in at the half with the contest still scoreless.
The decisive moment of the match came just five minutes after the restart, as Kashima wingback Shuto Yamamoto picked up the ball on the left sideline, following a throw-in, and used a quick cutback move to evade his defender for just a moment. Spinning upfield he immediately scanned the penalty area and fired a low, hard cross towards the penalty spot. Kashima ace Mu Kanazaki was in perfect position to react, a half-step behind Shogo Taniguchi so that the Frontale defender could not watch the flight of the ball and Kanazaki's position at the same time. As the cross curled downward, Kanazaki lunged headfirst in front of Taniguchi and flicked the ball on into the far side netting, to give the Antlers the upper hand.
Now the dynamic of play was reversed, with Kawasaki forced to press the attack, and Kashima looking to defend their advantage. However, whereas Frontale are an attacking team by nature, the Antlers have a two-decade history of excellence in the category of defending a narrow lead. With the possible exception of the 2010 championship edition of Nagoya Grampus, no team has ever played off the back foot with as much poise and patience as the Antlers. As the minutes slowly ticked away, the only thing that Frontale fans could do was idly wonder what might have happened if only their team had gone on the attack from the outset.
Forty minutes after Kanazaki's goal celebration, the final whistle sounded. and the Antlers were through to the Home-and-Away Championship Series against Urawa. This is certainly a fitting matchup. It seems highly probable that this will be the last time the J.League title is decided through a championship playoff. And what better way to close out the Two-Stage era than with a head-to-head clash between these two fierce rivals.
J.Soccer will keep you informed of all the excitement, as well as reporting on the J2 promotion playoffs and the promotion/relegation clash between J3 runners-up Tochigi SC and J2 stragglers Zweigen Kanazawa.