Matchweek 34, the final matchweek of the 2020 J.League 1 season, was played out on Saturday. With both the league title and the runners-up spot being sealed up by Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka respectively and with no relegation for the 2020 season, the only item at stake for Saturday’s matches was the league’s bronze medal, which would guarantee whoever occupies it a spot in the 2021 AFC Champions League. And it was Nagoya Grampus who managed to clinch themselves 3rd place for the 2020 season, beating Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 at the Toyota Stadium to secure a return to Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2012.
Coming into Matchweek 34, Nagoya held a one point advantage over fourth placed Cerezo Osaka and a two point advantage over fifth placed Kashima Antlers in the race for third, with the latter two facing off against one another at the Kashima Soccer Stadium. Massimo Ficcadenti’s men took on a Sanfrecce side with little to play for on a back of a 5-match unbeaten run, however they remain on high alert as Sanfrecce were the last team to defeat them in the league this season. A single slip-up from Nagoya in this match would give either Kashima or Cerezo the advantage in the race for third, something that the Aichi Prefecture-based side won’t allow them to have.
The first half saw Sanfrecce threatening Nagoya through Douglas Vieira and Hayao Kawabe, however the two were thwarted by the crossbar and Nagoya goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak respectively.
In a drab encounter that saw both teams registering two shots on target each, it was Nagoya who emerged out victorious, with Naoki Maeda smashed a superb effort into the top-left corner past Sanfrecce goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi in the 86th minute, with Ryogo Yamasaki assisting what turned out to be the winning goal.
The 1-0 win, combined with Kashima and Cerezo playing out a 1-1 stalemate at the Kashima Soccer Stadium, ensured Nagoya a third place finish in the conclusion of the 2020 J1 season, capping off a remarkable campaign where Nagoya invoked spirits of the old Nagoya side that hung around the upper echelons of the J1 table in the late 2000s and early 2010s. For the past four years, Nagoya had underwent a turbulent period in their history, being relegated in 2016, promoted back to the J1 in 2017 after winning the promotion play-off out of the J.League 2, and hanging around the lower half of the J1 table in 2018 and 2019.
Nagoya’s efforts this season were rewarded with their first ACL bow since 2012 and should either Kawasaki or Gamba win the 2020 Emperor’s Cup, they will be guaranteed a spot in the group stage while fourth placed Cerezo will be taking part in the qualifying play-offs. But for now, Nagoya are at least guaranteed a spot in the play-offs pending the conclusion of this year’s Emperor’s Cup.
Matchweek 34 saw two local derbies being played out, with Yokohama FC beating Yokohama F. Marinos 3-1 at the NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium. 53-year old Kazuyoshi Miura once again rewrote the history books as the oldest active J1 player after he made a 90th minute cameo in the Yokohama Derby. Saturday’s other derby saw Sagan Tosu and Oita Trinita playing out an exciting 2-2 draw in the latest edition of the Kyushu Derby at the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium, a result that ensured mid-table finishes for the two Kyushu teams – with Oita averting the dreaded “second season syndrome” after a strong 9th place finish in 2019 to finish 11th in 2020 and Tosu defying various adversities this season – which include the threat of going out of business altogether and being the J.League’s first COVID-19 cluster – to finish in a comfortable 13th place.
Other Matchweek 34 results include league champions Kawasaki fending off a brave performance from hosts Kashiwa Reysol to edge their opponents out 3-2, Gamba succumbing to a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Shimizu S-Pulse, FC Tokyo beating Vissel Kobe 1-0 at the Ajinomoto Stadium to ensure a miserable 14th place finish for the latter, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo beating Urawa Red Diamonds 2-0 at the Saitama Stadium 2002, and Vegalta Sendai condemning Shonan Bellmare to last place in the league with a 0-0 draw at the Yurtec Stadium – a result that ensured Vegalta managed to finish the 2020 season without a single win at their own backyard.