East Asia Japan

Frontale Clinch Fourth Title in Five Years

Kawasaki Frontale once again confirmed their supremacy as kings of the J.League 1 after they clinched their fourth title in five years on Wednesday. Taking on Urawa Red Diamonds in their Matchweek 34 game, Kawasaki could only muster a 1-1 draw, however, a 1-0 win for Gamba Osaka away at Kawasaki’s closest rivals Yokohama F. Marinos meant that Toru Oniki’s men got to defend the title that they’ve won last year.

Having won the 2020 J.League 1 at a canter, many pundits have backed on Kawasaki to retain their title in the 2021 season, especially considering their only major exit during the winter off-season was Hidemasa Morita to Portuguese side Santa Clara – leaving a hole that was quickly patched up by the signing of Joao Schmidt from Nagoya Grampus. Talisman Kengo Nakamura also announced his retirement at the end of the 2020 season, marking 2021 the first year Kawasaki will embark on a league campaign without his legendary presence.

And true to form, Kawasaki picked up from where they left off in 2020, battering teams left, right, and center as they went on a 25-match unbeaten run. Not even their only defeat of the season – a 1-0 loss away at newly-promoted high-flyers Avispa Fukuoka – and the summer losses of Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka to Brighton & Hove Albion and Fortuna Dusseldorf respectively could not slow Kawasaki down and they proceeded to do business as usual after that defeat in Fukuoka, winning all of their seven games to ensure that their coronation as 2021 champions would be a matter of when and not if.

Wednesday’s 1-1 draw was only Kawasaki’s 7th draw of the season – a late equalizer from former Marseille player Hiroki Sakai canceling out a 33rd minute opener from Jesiel – however, Shu Kurata’s 55th minute finish for Gamba at the Nissan Stadium would ensure that Kawasaki would have an unassailable lead that would last the entire season. Champions for the fourth time in five years – Kawasaki have definitely built a footballing dynasty of some standard.

The challenge is still there for Toru Oniki’s men – they’re still in this year’s Emperor’s Cup semifinal, taking on relegation-threatened Oita Trinita, in their bid to also retain their cup title from 2020. Win that and Kawasaki will have done the double for the second season running.

However, Kawasaki were eliminated from this year’s J.League Cup on away goals by Urawa, while their quest to conquer Asia was ended in a penalty shootout in the round of 16 of this year’s AFC Champions League, admittedly at the hands of an equally ominous team in the form of South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai.

Should Kawasaki wish to truly conquer Japan and Asia, they should figure out a way to retain their league and cup ferocity and take them to the other two competitions.

A key component behind Kawasaki’s title win this year is their ability to regenerate their talent. With Morita, Mitoma, and Tanaka all leaving, their places were replaced with an equally-talented young bunch in Daiya Tono and Kento Tachibanada – the latter particularly having impressed in the ACL, showing no nervousness despite being a youngster thrown into the deep end of Asia’s premier club competition – as well as players in their prime such as Kei Chinen and Kazuki Kozuka. Combine that with the evergreen ruthlessness of Leandro Damiao and Yu Kobayashi as well as the already-firing engines of existing talent such as Reo Hatate and Yasuto Wakizaka, then you’ll get a merciless unit who have only dropped 17 out of a possible 102 points on offer.

And they have another record at their sights – their 2020 tally of 83 points from 34 games are set to be eclipsed by Kawasaki’s possible 97 points in 38 games, however, one should remember that this year’s J1 campaign is being contested by 20 teams instead of 18 due to the pandemic.

But for now, the Kawasaki camp could now enjoy one thing and one thing only. Title celebrations.

“It’s terrific that we were able to clinch the title in front of so many fans,” said head coach Oniki as quoted from The Japan Times, taking note of the full-house capacity Todoroki Athletics Stadium that witnessed their coronation, “It would have been nice to win today, but this championship represents the sum of our efforts over the last year and I’m very proud of the team.”

With the league already sealed and the Emperor’s Cup possibly coming Kawasaki’s way, the onus was once again on defending Kawasaki’s players from the prying eyes of football’s bigger fishes during the off-season, with Hatate already being rumored with a move to Ange Postecoglou’s Glasgow Celtic. But as Oniki mull over plans for continuing this season’s dominance into the next, he must concentrate on ending this season on an even bigger high.

But until then, congratulations on your league title, Kawasaki Frontale!