East Asia Japan

5-Star Performance from Frontale and Ienaga Clinch Them 3rd J1 Title

The inevitable has finally arrived. Kawasaki Frontale has been crowned champions of the 2020 J.League 1 season after an emphatic win in their Matchweek 29 game, dismantling 2nd placed Gamba Osaka 5-0 at the Todoroki Athletics Stadium on Wednesday to end the slim title chances of the only team mathematically capable of catching up with them. Veteran midfielder Akihiro Ienaga gave a performance worthy of a standing ovation as he bagged himself a hat-trick in the dominant demolition job.

Having ruthlessly crushed virtually almost everyone left, right, and center, it seems that Kawasaki’s coronation as J1 champions was a matter of when and not if. Toru Oniki’s men could’ve clinched the title as early as Matchweek 28, however they conspired to lose 1-0 away at Oita Trinita, while at the same time Gamba edged out Urawa Red Diamonds 2-1 in Saitama to keep their slim title chances alive. This sets up an exciting Matchweek 29 showdown at the Todoroki, with leaders Kawasaki taking on 2nd placed Gamba at their own backyard.

Knowing the importance of Wednesday’s showdown all too well, Toru Oniki decided to bring out his big guns right from the get-go, with the likes of Leandro Damiao, Kaoru Mitoma, Ao Tanaka, Ienaga, and Ryota Oshima ready to beat the stuffing out of Gamba. Gamba head coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto also went gung-ho for this encounter, with both Takashi Usami and Patric starting up front for the men from Suita.

Gamba were facing a mountain of a task in front of them – to win this year’s J1, they must win at Kawasaki and perform a clean sweep of their four remaining matches afterwards, whilst hoping that Kawasaki would slip-up and perform a collapse of epic proportions by losing all four of their own matches. And sure enough, Gamba’s faint hopes of clinching their own third league title were wiped away as early as the 22nd minute of the match, when Damiao took advantage of a Kyohei Noborizato cross to pounce in the opener.

As the 11,370 pair of eyes in attendance watched on, Damiao played a huge role in Kawasaki’s second, just before the referee blew for half-time. Tanaka’s corner was swung towards Damiao, with the Brazilian heading the ball towards the path of Ienaga. The former Real Mallorca man made no mistake with his shot, firing past Masaaki Higashiguchi from close-range.

Ienaga then made it 3-0 just four minutes into the second stanza, with the former Omiya Ardija midfielder being left virtually unmarked during a Kawasaki counter, which enabled him to beat Higashiguchi for a second time.

34-year old goalie Higashiguchi must’ve been sick of seeing the sight of Ienaga before him as the veteran midfielder completed his hat-trick in the 73rd minute, seizing a low cross from Mitoma to beat Higashiguchi for the third time in the match.

Manabu Saito then added the icing on Kawasaki’s already wonderfully-decorated cake in the 90th minute, tapping in a rebound from Higashiguchi after the Gamba goalie had thwarted substitute Reo Hatate.

Club legend Kengo Nakamura, who had announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2020 season, was given a chance for a run out by Oniki four minutes before Saito’s goal, allowing him to grace the Todoroki pitch for a few minutes and end the match as a J1 champion for the third time in his career.

In a season disrupted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kawasaki had proven themselves to be leagues above everyone else in the J1 this year. A condensed schedule did not affect them very much, as both their main squad and their secondary squad have the ability to pull out results against any opposition. The fact that Oniki had blended veteran experience in Nakamura, Yu Kobayashi, and Ienaga with young talent in Mitoma, Tanaka, and Hatate so excellently this season contributed to Kawasaki’s commanding march to the league title for 2020. Mitoma alone had scored 12 goals and bagged 8 assist so far in his debut season as a pro player – and most of them coming off the bench!

There were only a few low points of Kawasaki’s season – their first league defeat of the 2020 season at the hands of Nagoya Grampus that was followed up by their draw away at Vissel Kobe, their exit from the J.League Cup at the hands of Tamagawa Clasico rivals FC Tokyo, their shock home defeat at the hands of Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, and their defeat away at Oita that delayed their inevitable league title. However, Kawasaki did well to rose from those adversities and they have deservedly won this year’s J1 thanks to a string of consistent and ruthless performances.

Despite losing the league title in such emphatic fashion, Gamba would still have a number of incentives to finish the season. The silver medal is now at stake and with Gamba only three points off 3rd placed Nagoya Grampus and six points off 4th placed Cerezo Osaka and 5th placed Kashima Antlers, the race is definitely on to clinch that second place and the AFC Champions League group stage ticket that comes with it.

J1 runners-up for this year will also qualify for the 2020 Emperor’s Cup, which, due to the pandemic, has been condensed into a mostly amateur team-dominated competition. The only professional teams from the top three tiers of Japanese football allowed into this year’s Emperor’s Cup are Blaublitz Akita as the 2020 J.League 3 winners, Kawasaki as J1 champions, and the still-undecided 2020 J.League 2 champions and 2020 J1 runners-up. Once again, an ACL group stage ticket for 2021 is up for grabs through the cup, which adds more incentive for the likes of Gamba, Nagoya, Cerezo, and Kashima to finish in that coveted runners-up spot.

Rounding up the action for Matchweek 29, Cerezo managed to eke out a 1-0 win away at Oita, while Shimizu S-Pulse pulled off a 3-1 win over Yokohama FC at the NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium. Kashima were embarrassed 4-1 at the Kashima Soccer Stadium by Kashiwa Reysol, while Shonan Bellmare and Sanfrecce Hiroshima played out a 1-1 draw at the Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka. Last but not least, last-placed Vegalta Sendai managed to pull of a 1-0 win away at Sagan Tosu.