Football Tribe SEA Editor
Joyous scenes broke out at the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama once the referee blows for full time. Immediately the Yokohama F. Marinos players and fans basked themselves in jubilation and joy, while despair hang over the FC Tokyo players as their faithful fans tried their best to lift their idols’ spirits. Indeed, yesterday was a cruel end for FC Tokyo’s title challenge, as impossible it may seem. The Gasmen came to Yokohama with one tough, nearly impossible mission – score four unanswered goals and beat Yokohama, and they will win their first ever J1 title. Instead, Kenta Hasegawa’s men were brutally smashed by Ange Postecoglou’s ruthless brand of attacking football in front of a record attendance of 63,854 people, with the Australian leading his Yokohama charges to a comfortable 3-0 victory. Not even the dismissal of their main goalie Park Iru-gyu five minutes after the hour-mark could deter this superb Yokohama team, who finally ended an agonizing 15-year wait for a J1 title.
A key figure in the Yokohama’s defense in their charge to the J1 title was Theerathon Bunmathan. The Thai international was in his second year in Japan, having spent the previous season at Vissel Kobe on loan from Muangthong United, and he excelled even more in his second J.League club. Theerathon clocked up 30 games with 3 goals and 4 assists, with one of those 3 goals coming in this very match. After helping the Yokohama defense in fending off early chances from the FC Tokyo attackers, Theerathon joined in the offensive as well in the 26th minute, firing off a shot that went off FC Tokyo captain Keigo Higashi and into Akihiro Hayashi’s net. 1-0 Yokohama and that goal enough should secure the title for the Kanagawa-based side as FC Tokyo now need to score five more goals to have a shot at the title.
However, true to Ange’s attacking philosophy, Yokohama refused to sit on their laurels just yet. Mid-season signing Erik, who was pivotal in Yokohama’s win over defending champions Kawasaki Frontale last matchweek with his brace, doubled Yokohama’s lead just before half-time. The Brazilian managed to outsmart two FC Tokyo defenders before delivering a low shot that Hayashi was unable to save to make it 2-0 Yokohama.
With FC Tokyo needing six goals to swing the title race in their favor, Yokohama could afford to lower their gears and slow down the pace a bit. Park’s dismissal for a last-man foul on FC Tokyo’s Kensuke Nagai outside the penalty area raised some anxiousness in the Yokohama camp, but deputy goalie Hirotsugu Nakabayashi managed to guard his lines well.
In the end, instead of the six-goal swing that they needed, FC Tokyo ended up surrendering the title completely in injury time. Substitute Keita Endo performed a solo run deep into the FC Tokyo defense, outsmarting defender Tsuyoshi Watanabe and firing off a low shot that went past Hayashi’s left leg. 3-0 Yokohama and the full-time whistle only minutes afterwards serve as confirmation of their title.
With their J1 title triumph, both Ange and Theerathon etched their names in the J.League history books as the first Australian head coach and Southeast Asian player respectively to have won the Japanese top flight title. Despite being sent-off, goalkeeper Park followed up his 2018 J3 League title with FC Ryukyu with the top flight title, capping off his seamless transition from J3 straight to J1. Both Teruhito Nakagawa and Marcos Junior played a huge role in creating a devastating offensive unit that suits Ange’s tactics, with both men scoring 15 goals each throughout the league season, amounting to 30 goals between them. The 2019 triumph also meant that Yokohama, who are backed by the City Football Group and Nissan, are now the J1’s second most successful team with 4 titles, trailing closely behind Kashima Antlers who has 8 top flight titles to their name.
Elsewhere in the league, a dramatic injury-time equalizer by Toyofumi Sakano meant that Shonan Bellmare are condemned to play the relegation play-offs after only managing a 1-1 draw away at already-relegated Matsumoto Yamaga. This meant that Sagan Tosu, who lost their final game of the season away at Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0, are safe, with the victory also saving Shimizu from the play-offs as well. Urawa Red Diamonds succumb to a 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Gamba Osaka but are spared the play-offs, so are Nagoya Grampus who were beaten at home 1-0 by Kashima Antlers, who confirmed 3rd place and with it a ticket to the 2020 AFC Champions League.
Shonan will face Tokushima Vortis, the 4th placed team in the 2019 J2 League, at the Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka on December 14th. Tokushima had previously eliminate both Ventforet Kofu and Montedio Yamagata in the J2 promotion play-offs to earn themselves a shot at a top flight place against Shonan.
As for the distribution of Asian places, champions Yokohama will play in the 2020 AFC Champions League group stages, while FC Tokyo will have to start their continental journey from the play-offs. Kashima are assured at least a play-off spot with their 3rd place finish, but should they win the ongoing 2019 Emperor’s Cup, they will go straight to the group stage with dethroned champions Kawasaki Frontale, who had finished 4th in the season, occupying Kashima’s play-off spot.
Kawasaki themselves finished the season on a high note after beating Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 2-1 at the Sapporo Dome, while Cerezo Osaka finished 5th after beating Oita Trinita 2-0 at the Showa Denko Dome in Oita, with the newly promoted side finishing the season with a very respectable 9th place. Sanfrecce Hiroshima wrapped up the season with a 1-0 home win over Vegalta Sendai, while David Villa ended his league career on a positive note as he scored a penalty for Vissel Kobe in a 4-1 demolition of last-placed Jubilo Iwata at the Misaki Park Stadium, with Lukas Podolski scoring a hat-trick for Vissel and Adailton providing the only sign of resistance for Jubilo. Villa’s footballing career is not over just yet though – he and his Vissel teammates still have the Emperor’s Cup to contend to, and Vissel are looking to send off their Spanish talisman with a bang by winning the competition.