Japan’s three representatives in the AFC Champions League – Yokohama F. Marinos, FC Tokyo, and Vissel Kobe – played their last J.League 1 matches before resuming their continental duties in Qatar later this month on Wednesday. FC Tokyo traveled North to Miyagi Prefecture to take on last-placed Vegalta Sendai, while Vissel Kobe took on Urawa Red Diamonds at the Misaki Park Stadium. Defending J1 champions Yokohama, on the other hand, took on runaway leaders Kawasaki Frontale at the Todoroki Stadium in what could be a clash between the outgoing champions and the inevitable title winners.
A win on Wednesday for Kawasaki would inch them closer to a third J1 title and what better way to do that than by beating the stuffing out of last year’s league champions Yokohama? Ange Postecoglou’s men made the short trip from Yokohama to Kawasaki to take on Toru Oniki’s league leaders and they actually held their own throughout the first half, forcing Kawasaki to a goalless draw despite losing goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka to a 40th minute red card. Takaoka was sent off after he had handled the ball just outside of his penalty box and midfielder Kota Mizunuma was sacrificed to allow Nigerian-Japanese goalkeeper Powell Obinna Obi to make his second J1 appearance.
Realizing that his side need some inspiration for the second half, Oniki decided to introduce the spark plug that is Kaoru Mitoma into the fray. Replacing Tatsuya Hasegawa, Mitoma was tasked with the job of providing inspiration for Kawasaki to break through Yokohama, and that’s exactly what the 23-year old did.
Mitoma, who inspired Kawasaki to a 3-1 win over Yokohama in their first J1 encounter of the season, broke the deadlock in the 52nd minute. Whilst attempting to cross the ball towards a teammate within Yokohama’s penalty box, Mitoma saw his attempt being deflected back to him by a Yokohama defender. Thinking quickly, Mitoma tried another crack, this time aiming straight towards Powell’s goal. It was a scrappy finish, but Powell was defeated and Kawasaki have their lead.
Unfortunately for the hosts, their lead did not last that long. In the 59th minute, Thailand international Theerathon Bunmathan sent a corner into a crowded Kawasaki box, with Shinnosuke Hatanaka rising the highest to smack the ball into Jung Sung-ryong’s goal with his head for the equalizer. 1-1, and despite having only 10 men in the field Yokohama saw an opportunity to salvage something out of this high octane encounter.
Yokohama refused to throw the towel despite being pressured by the hosts and they kept their heads above water as they seek to escape the Todoroki with a point. And it actually almost worked. Emphasis on almost, since Kawasaki’s relentless pressure caused Yokohama’s defenses to buckle right in the dying minutes of the match.
As the clock struck 90 minutes, Kawasaki’s Brazilian defender Jesiel received a ball deflected towards him by a Yokohama defender. Controlling the ball with his chest before quickly gaining possession with his right foot, Jesiel quickly switched the ball to his left foot and pulled the trigger from point-blank range, with the ball outsmarting Powell and going straight into the goal.
Yokohama were clearly stunned by Jesiel’s late goal and immediately they went into panic stations. And to add a bucketload of salt into Yokohama’s wounds, Kawasaki sealed the win with virtually the last kick of the game after a chaotic series of events.
Yokohama’s Thiago Martins had fouled Mitoma within the box, prompting the referee to award Kawasaki a penalty. Substitute Yu Kobayashi was tasked in dispatching the spot kick, but Powell did well to deny the veteran striker. As Powell had merely deflected the ball behind, Kawasaki were awarded a corner. Kengo Nakamura took the corner quickly, allowing Kawasaki to quickly regroup and reorganize their attack. This lead to Yokohama’s defenders forcing the Kawasaki attackers to spill the ball out of the pitch, which prolonged injury time slightly but still allowing Kawasaki to have full possession of the ball as they were given a throw-in deep within Yokohama territory. However, Yokohama managed to get a throw-in of their own shortly afterwards, but as the visitors pushed forward Kawasaki’s frighteningly quick counterattack suddenly took effect.
While a second ago Yokohama were trying to break into Kawasaki’s defense, they suddenly found themselves seeing Mitoma running away with the ball, bursting with pace as he made his way into Yokohama territory. As Mitoma entered Yokohama’s penalty box, the youngster unselfishly laid the ball off towards Kobayashi, who avenged his earlier penalty miss with a powerful shot that went beyond an onrushing Powell, wrapping up an eventful last few minutes of the match with Kawasaki’s third goal of the night, confirming the win for Oniki’s charges. The 3-1 win meant that Kawasaki are now 17 points clear off 2nd placed Gamba Osaka and with only 6 games to go until the end of the season, Kawasaki’s coronation as J1 champions is indeed a matter of when and not if.
Japan’s other ACL representatives also did not fare well on Wednesday, with a late equalizer denying FC Tokyo all three points as they were forced to a 2-2 draw at Vegalta’s Yurtec Stadium and Vissel succumbing to a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Urawa. However, Yokohama, FC Tokyo, and Vissel will have no time to fret their league results, as their Asian duties are beckoning them. As their league rivals continue to battle on the domestic front, Yokohama, FC Tokyo, and Vissel will depart to Qatar to take on East Asia’s finest in the resumption of this year’s ACL.
Yokohama’s next match will saw them take on Chinese Super League giants Shanghai SIPG in a double-header on November 25th and 28th, with both matches taking place at the Al-Wakrah Sports Complex. FC Tokyo will have to face-off against SIPG’s city rivals Shanghai Greenland Shenhua at the Education City Stadium on November 24th and 27th. Vissel on the other hand will have the mammoth task of handling Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao at the Khalifa International Stadium on November 25th, before taking on the Chinese Super League titans again at the Al-Wakrah Sports Complex on November 28th.