3 - 2
The curtain went up on the 2017 J.League season on Saturday, and the new year got underway almost exactly as the last one left off. Once again, the Kashima Antlers claimed the silverware. And once again, for all their boasting about how they deserve to be considered the "true champions" of the J.League, and how unfair it is when lesser, wholly undeserving teams keep beating them in championship matches, Urawa Reds simply couldn't win the game when it mattered.
For those of you who missed it, on the eve of Saturday's Xerox Cup match, Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic gave an interview in which he explained to the Reds' legion of faithful fans why they remain the best team in Japan, even though they never seem to be able to actually claim a trophy. In his comments to Kyodo News, Petrovic stated (among other things) that, "You should ask the chairman of the J.League if we were champions last year or not. We were the moral winners and the Kashima Antlers players at last year's J.League award ceremony said themselves that they felt Urawa were the champions."
Not content with merely trolling his prospective opponents in the following day's match, he went on to say that "... watching [Kashima take Real Madrid to overtime in last year's Club World Cup] made me think that, if had been us in the final, we would have beaten Real Madrid." But we are all quite familiar with the posturing and boasting that real championship-calibre teams often exhibit. Naturally, Petrovic's players backed up their gaffer's bold talk, by going out and proving beyond doubt that they deserve to be considered the REAL champions.
. . . Yeah, OK . . . I'm just messing with you. The Reds actually confirmed their credentials as the most overpaid, overpampered and most underwhelming team in the J.League. True champions do not try to bait the opposition with put-downs. After the game, true champions offer compliments to their opponents, regardless of whether they win or lose (something Petrovic clearly fails to understand). But above all, true champions don't go around making excuses. They go out and get the job done. On Saturday afternoon, it was clear which of these two teams deserves to be called "champions".
In actual fact, the only thing that really kept this match competitive was the heroic efforts of referee Hiroyuki Kimura, who ignored two very clear-cut PK shouts by Antlers in the first half, and then gave Shinzo Koroki a spot kick in the second half on what looked like a deliberate dive on first viewing, and was even more obvious when shown on replay. (Fans in Yokohama greeted the officials with a thunderous chorus of boos in the post-match awards ceremony, as can be heard in the opening 30 seconds of the official J.League video. on Facebook). The assist by Mr. Kimura sparked a brief flurry of action by the Reds, to reverse a 2-0 deficit. But lets not get ahead of ourselves. To begin at the beginning . . . .
It was a nice day for football in Yokohama. The sky was overcast but a hint of spring was in the air and the chilly winds of winter had abated after a frigid start to February. A boisterous crowd of 48,000 turned out at Nissan Stadium for the J.League curtain-raiser. The first half developed almost exactly as last year's contests between the two clubs had, both in the regular season and in the Championship. Urawa used speed, power and short quick passes to maintain a majority of the ball possession, but almost all of the truly dangerous scoring chances happened at the other end, as Kashima sat back in a defensive pose and targeted the passing lanes, launching sudden counterattacks down the wings when they won the ball. Leo Silva and Mitsuo Ogasawara both had solid outings, opening up Reds' defense on many occasions with pinpoint passes into the front line.
However, some excellent work in goal by NT keeper Shusaku Nishikawa kept the match scoreless until five minutes before the break, when a clumsy lunging tackle on Mu Kanazaki by Wataru Endo gave Antlers an inviting free kick. Antlers players lined up for just outside the Urawa box, and as Nishikawa cheated to his right expecting a powerful drive from Leo Silva, Yasushi Endo's left boot delicately curled the ball inside the opposite post. This set off a torrid barrage of pressure from Antlers, which resulted in two or three shots barely pushed away by Nishikawa. Eventually, Kanazaki got free in the left channel and fired a shot off the base of the post, which Endo collected and drilled home from close range. This time Nishikawa was too overextended to keep the ball out of the net, and Kashima went in at the break with a 2-0 advantage.
Apart from a flurry of pressure by Urawa immediately after the restart, the momentum seemed to remain on Kashima's side as the contest moved into the final quarter, as they continued their defend-and-counter strategy. But with just over 15 minutes to go, Mr. Kimura intervened. Koroki charged into the box on the dribble, pushed it towards the end line to get Ogasawara to challenge, and then launched himself into the air. Even in real time it looked like a blatant dive, but replays made it even more obvious that the Antlers captain had pulled his leg back before Koroki took flight. In any event, Koroki's spot kick cut the deficit to 2-1.
Reds then did do a good job of exploiting the momentary shift in momentum, with Zlatan spinning into the box for a parried drive at the keeper, and Yuki Muto slotting home the rebound. But Kashima almost immediately regained their poise, and for the first time in the contest, started to press forward in numbers on the attack. With seven minutes remaining, super-sub Yuma Suzuki chased a long pass into the Reds penalty box, nipping at Moriwaki's heels as the Reds defender tried to shepherd the ball to his goalkeeper. As they neared Nishikawa, Suzuki put on a sudden burst of speed, dashed past Moriwaki and poked the ball between the keeper's legs, to secure the victory -- and yet another title -- for the Golden Herd of Ibaraki.