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A Look at the Final Race
Albirex Niigata supporters say thank you to departing Sorimachi
Reds supporters
Marinos supporters
Kashima supporters cheer for Cerezo who is leaving the club

Photos from J's Goal
Gamba Osaka's 4-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale was, in anything else, very "Gamba". Like I said in my pre-round entry, Gamba prefer to go forward, allowing a goal if it means they can get two or three. A team like Gamba (and in recent years, other "attack"-colored teams like Jef and Reds) add a lot of zest and sparkle. And in Gamba's case, this win may have been the win of the management more than anything else. Their ability to develop key players from the youth level (players you know like Oguro, Miyamoto, Inamoto, Endo, all come from Gamba youth) as well as making spot-on decisions about their non-Japanese players -- Sidiclei, who is now captain; Fernandinho, and of course Araujo who is both top goal scorer and had the most assists.

Gamba until now have been the only team that was present at the inception of the J-league not to have won a single title. They were quite weak for a long time, and were sometimes refered to as J1's "baggage". When the final whistle blew, many cameras were on Miyamoto, who was quite openly weeping -- something we have (at least in my memory) not seen to this degree. In post-game tv shows, (the players made the rounds) all interviewers pointedly asked Miyamoto whether the tears came from relief-mingled joy after this difficult season of risk-taking football (difficult for defenders). He sidestepped the question by just acknowledging that a lot of things went through his mind, but this is something to consider for next year especially when they play in the ACL. Towards the end, Gamba had been thoroughly analyzed by opponents, and that is part of what caused their troubles in the final few rounds.

The day after Gamba raised silverware for the first time, it was announced Araujo was leaving the club. Part of the reason being his family's wishes to return home. Whether Gamba can re-establish a new magical triangle again, I'm not sure.

I will address this whole clumping-at-the-top situation in a separate entry, but you gotta admit it did keep things suspenseful to the very last minute. In fact, one network sports show did a cute "24" (sans Keifer Sutherland) take on the busy day >>Click to download video. You can see how emotions see-sawed as time ticked by, and supporters at different stadiums were logging into their cellphones trying to get updates.

When Endo kicked the PK for the 3rd goal, he said he looked to the bench and saw his teammates not looking particularly excited so he knew that Cerezo were winning. But then with just a few minutes of injury time, Oguro was seen checking a staffer's cell phone and signaling to his team on the pitch with two fingers up on each hand -- indicating Cerezo was 2-2 with FC Tokyo. The 4th goal from Araujo was in direct contrast to the third from Endo, with the bench jumping with joy and the supporters spilling out of the stands and engulfing their players, despite the fact the game was not quite officially over. It was certainly a dramatic finish to the day.

Where there is light, there is shadow:
Unfortunately for Cerezo Osaka, this was not to be their moment of glory. It was indeed painful to see the reaction of the supporters and players after FC Tokyo equalized literally in the last minute of the game. But if we rewind back a little, the true fork in the road could have been when Cerezo missed the PK awarded to them when Furuhashi was taken down inside the box at 36 mins. Ze Carlos took the shot, but it was a little slow and too much in the center, because FCT keeper Doi was able to readjust his movement and deflect it in time -- though from the look on his face, Doi seemed rather astounded that he got to it.

The game opened up with things looking very solid for the sakura-colored team, when their dynamic Nishizawa came through with a great header goal at 3 mins. He seemed to float in the air for a moment before making contact. Though FCT equalized things before the half time whistle, at which point Urawa Reds were in 1st place, Cerezo came through again 3 mins from the start of the second half with another Nishizawa goal.

Things were looking good for Cerezo, and FCT manager Hara said that he made player substitutions to try and circumvent the Cerezo defense with some power-play long balls. Instead, the Tokyo players decided they prefered to play passing football, and Tokyo found their pace threatening Cerezo over and over again. It was all Cerezo could do to clear the ball from in front of their goal, and calling forth two near-line clearances. But that focus crumbled a little in the final minutes, when FCT's switch to long balls gave them a corner, which was taken short, and the rebound from the first shot was chest-trapped and volleyed in by a level-headed Konno.

The FCT players said that they did not want to witness Cerezo's celebrations in front of their eyes, and perhaps that bit of stubborn fighting spirit kept them going to the last minute. Either way, it was a cruel turn of events for Cerezo. The game itself was very meaty. Some people say that the absence of defense leader Bruno Quadros was too big a hole (accumulated bookings), but those are the rules of the league, so it's silly to start playing the if-only game.

Top Two Supporters:
At Niigata's Big Swam stadium, the seats were filled with the red and the orange clad supporters -- the two most healthy supporter population in the league. Though the skies were slightly overcast with light rain drizzling, I had been looking forward to seeing the rebroadcast of this game at least just to see the supporters at their very best. On the pitch, it was pretty obvious Reds were the better team. The first two goals from set pieces by Ponte.

At half time, as I said before, Reds were the temporary champions, and if things had stayed that way, it would have been an even more dramatic finish indeed. Though Reds came through with two more goals in the second half (the first was a cross from Okano to Maric's heel shot, the next some lovely passing from Ponte, Nagai, to Yamada for a textbook fourth goal), Frontale were not able to keep Gamba at bay, and dreams of a title were dashed for the Reds.

As you can see from the photo on the left (of the orange colored supporters holding up white signs), the post game ceremonies also included a farewell to manager Sorimachi who will not be with Albirex Niigata next season.

Not a 10th:
At Kashima stadium, where Zico was in attendance to cheer on his "home" club, things were equally good and bad for Antlers. They played a great game against Kashiwa Reysol, but considering their position in the table going in, it would have been miracles of all miracles for them to have gotten the championship. It was an ideal game for the 9 title-holders, but all rather too late. Still, for Antlers supporters (see photo at left, very bottom, saying farewell to Toninho Cerezo who is leaving the club) it was important for the team to have an emphatic finish to the league season after faltering so much in this second half of the year.

Kashima kept Reysol at bay with persistent defensive pressure and a quick switch to the offense once they got possession, their offense performed with little waste. Goals came from the rookie Nozawa and newcomer Alex Mineiro, both of whom, along with Fukai, really came through this year. In the second half, they overwhelmed Reysol on both defense and offense. Nozawa got another goal, and at 79 mins, veteran Honda was subbed in immediately before Kashima were to take a PK awarded them. It was Honda who took the PK shot, a symbolic gesture perhaps by the team (usually it would be Ogasawara who would take it) for the return of the veteran and on this significant last round game.

There will always be regrets surrounding Antlers this season, and the performance they put on in this last round may force some of us to ask "why did they not play like this last week? or the week before?" The Kashima players did not get any information from their staff about what was going on in other stadia, so they were able to focus on the game in front of them. And perhaps the match-up between Kashima and Reysol, who still have to worry about their play-off game coming up, was just too lopsided in terms of motivation.

Ya Wait, Ya Win:
At Fukuda Denshi Arena, I was freezing my tush off (I should have dressed warmer!) and decided from the get-go that I was not going to check the other game scores and distract myself from the game being played out in front of me. It was a long shot that Chiba would nab the championship, and though I declare myself supporter of Kashima and a rooter of FC Tokyo (I kid you not, there is a difference, at least in my mind...!), Jef have coyly seduced me throughout this season.

But while things were going nutty at the other four stadia, things were frustratingly still in Chiba. Jef took a while to find themselves on the pitch, and Nagoya were putting on a very organized and strong defense. Jef were able to find inroads via the sides, as is their style, but the closer they got to the opponent penalty area, the more unwilling they seemed to take a shot. They kept passing around and eventually fell to Nagoya's interceptions.

As Sakamoto commented later, "Even if we lost, we'd still be in 5th place, so we promised each other at half time that we would take more risks and get on the attack."

When Nagoya's goalie, Narazaki was carried off the pitch after colliding with a defender during one of Chiba's attacks, I thought maybe Jef had the advantage over the less experienced Kawashima. But it turned out Kawashima was more than prepared for this unexpected opportunity, denying Jef goals time and again. I thought we finally got one at 66 mins, when a great cross from Mizuno's cross met Haas, but the goal was void due to a (questionable?) off-sides call.

Nagoya saw that Jef were on the attack, and they took advantage. In an unbelievable turn of events, it was Nagoya who got the first goal off a long feed that confused the Jef defense and goalie. Kamogawa only had to aim the loping ball with his head and direct it into the empty goal. This was at 81 mins, so you can imagine what was going through Jef supporters minds...

But it was worth it to stay til the end, despite my frostbitten tush, because that's when Jef decided they wanted to end the season with a win... A PK was awarded Jef when Saito was taken down in the box during a throw in, and Abe neatly made the shot. Then a minute later, a pass from Abe to Haas went to Sakamoto for a great winning goal.

I remember a year ago, watching Jef's captain promise to the crowds in last year's final league game with tears in his eyes, "Next year, we aim to get a title, even just that one." And they did at the Nabisco. But the league is a tougher beast, and from what we saw in this last round game, there is both concern and prommise. Concerns that they allowed unnecessary fear to affect their confidence, and promise that they are headed in the right direction by getting their first title and being able to come back from being 0-1 down to winning 2-1.

Last bit of mumbling:
With the season now in a one-stage format, it is going to be that much more important for teams to be able to win. This season, we saw a lot of games where teams should have won instead of drawn at the last minute, and that probably contributed to this 5-horse final race. It was great for the sake of keeping the whole season exciting from start to finish, but all the teams involved showed their achilles very clearly this season and that allowed for more mediocrity when we should have seen them step on towards the next level of performance. Of course, this is not entirely the players' fault -- it probably has more to do with depth (having more top level players available to choose from, youth development, etc) and mentality (to win and other psychological areas).

I'll stop here for now :)
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