Antlers on the charge

Kashima Antlers finished well off the pace in the regular J1 season, but are now just two games away from being crowned champions – at the expense of bitter rivals and overall table-toppers Urawa Reds… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 28th November, 2016

Here we go, then. Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers to decide who will be crowned 2016 J.League champions. On paper this is the ideal way to see off the ill-fated two-stage system: the biggest club in Japanese football against the most successful club in Japanese football.

However, while a mouthwatering fixture, a glance at the overall table suggests the scales aren’t evenly balanced ahead of this heavyweight showdown.

Antlers ended up 15 points behind table-topping Reds after 34 games, as well as being worse off by 14 goals, and appeared to be on holiday during the second stage – finishing 11th in the rankings for the second term with only 20 points, less than half the 41 amassed by Reds over the same period.

The Ibaraki side won just six games in the second half of the season, losing nine times including their last four matches. They failed to even score in their final two league games, as they suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats at home to Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel Kobe.

Ultimately, having already booked their place in the play offs by winning the first stage, their last 17 games of the season didn’t matter though. That’s not to say they weren’t trying, but when there are no consequences for defeat it is understandably harder to motivate yourself to give everything for victory. Reds themselves cruised to the first stage title unbeaten last year, for instance, but went on to finish nine points behind second stage champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

“We want to get into the Championship however we can,” Daigo Nishi told me back in June, after Kashima had beaten Reds 2-0 in Saitama to move six points clear of Urawa in second with two first stage games to play. “Antlers are good at knockout football so we want to make sure of our place.”

That victory set them on their way, and Kashima moved top the following weekend before finishing the job off and claiming the first stage crown a fortnight later. Rounds 16 and 17 of the first stage were the only two weeks Masatada Ishii’s side spent in first place all season. Kawasaki, who they beat 1-0 in the Championship semi final last Wednesday, conversely spent 21 rounds at the summit.

Antlers on the march

Frontale once again finished the campaign empty handed, however, while Antlers are just two games away from adding an eighth first division title. After cruising through the past few months they now have the bit between their teeth, nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Antlers have played the system almost to perfection and conserved their energy, both physical and mental, for the final push – just as they did at the end of the first stage when they executed their smash and grab with six wins on the bounce to pip Reds and Frontale to the post.

“I told you, right, during the first stage? If we make it into the Championship we will be strong,” Nishi reminded me after Wednesday’s win over Frontale. “We are the challenger.

“We were a little bit stiff [at the start of the semi final], but I don’t think it was too different to usual. There’ll be less of that in the final – we’re confident. I think winning today will give us a boost.”

Captain Mitsuo Ogasawara dismissed the idea that the respective finalist’s league records will have an influence on the game, as well as brushing aside any suggestion that Antlers have the extra motivation of denying their biggest rivals a first league crown for a decade.

“I don’t care who the opponent is,” he said in typically forthright fashion. “Looking at it from a different perspective of course we wanted to do well in [the second stage] too, but that is that and this is this.”

Kento Misao, who was sent on to firm things up as Kawasaki looked for an equaliser in the semi final, is of a similar mind and thinks Reds will be feeling a greater sense of expectation on their shoulders.

“It’s different games, the league and Championship, and it doesn’t matter that we were 15 points behind them,” he said.

“We have to win and play aggressively. I think they have more pressure than us. It will be difficult but if we play our football we can win.”

For all the talk of it being a different competition, though, it isn’t. Whoever emerges as the victor from the next two games will go down in history as the 2016 champions.

Antlers have shown time and again that they can up their game when the heat is on, and the temperature is sure to be searing come the second leg in Saitama on 3rd December. Can Reds avoid being burned?


Changing of the guard

Japan’s first choice XI is changing bit by bit under Vahid Halilhodzic, although the Bosnian still seems unsure about who he wants playing in central midfield… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 14th November, 2016

It is only happening gradually, but the make up of Japan’s best XI appears to be evolving under Vahid Halilhodzic.

Stalwarts of the side from the past couple of World Cup cycles are increasingly finding that their places in the XI are not guaranteed – whether as a result of form, fitness, or a combination of both – and new players are steadily establishing themselves as key to the side’s chances of success.

Yuto Nagatomo, for instance, has not started any of the last five games, Shinji Kagawa has been in and out of the team – although still tends to start the more important matches – Shinji Okazaki hasn’t completed 90 minutes since 8 September last year, and even Keisuke Honda is no longer the untouchable of two years ago, being subbed off for the fourth game in a row against Oman on Friday night.

Meanwhile, Genki Haraguchi and, most impressively, Hiroshi Kiyotake have been performing so well that Halilhodzic has no choice but to keep picking them, while Hiroki Sakai and Gotoku Sakai now look settled as the first choice full-backs.

Yuya Osako’s ruthless display in front of goal back in Kashima also demonstrated that there are other players capable of filling Okazaki’s boots when he is not in form – as he undoubtedly isn’t for the Samurai Blue at the moment, having been stuck on 49 goals for his country since netting in the 7-2 rout of Bulgaria seven games ago.

The centre of midfield, however, is the one area of the pitch where it seems Halilhodzic is struggling to find a solution.

Yasuhito Endo played his last national team game under previous coach Javier Aguirre in the quarter final loss to UAE at the Asian Cup in January 2015, and a return under Halilhodzic never seemed to be on the cards for the Gamba Osaka star. With a line having been drawn under the international career of Japan’s most capped player, however, no-one has been able to stake an authoritative claim for the vacant No.7 shirt.

Plenty have been auditioned for the role – with Ryota Nagaki’s debut on Friday making him the 11th player to line up in the middle since Halihodzic took the reins in March last year – but it is still not clear what the Bosnian’s preferred combination is. The last time he stuck with a pairing for back-to-back games was when Makoto Hasebe and Yosuke Kashiwagi started both the Bulgaria and Bosnia friendlies in June.

Football Channel, Monday 14th November, 2016 (Getty)

Since then there has been a tendency to alternate between Kashiwagi and Hotaru Yamaguchi, although Halilhodzic doesn’t seem convinced enough by either to make them his first choice to partner captain Hasebe – who we must assume is guaranteed one last chance to play at the World Cup finals considering that he started eight in a row before being rested against Oman.

“I still don’t feel as if I am established in the side and have to keep playing with that outlook, knowing my place is not safe,” Yamaguchi said after another steady display in Kashima.

“There are new players coming in – today I think Ryota [Nagaki] played well – so within that there is good competition for places.”

One interesting aspect of that competition is that Halilhodzic appears to be leaning towards a more experienced head in the centre, having sampled and not been too impressed with younger candidates like Gaku Shibasaki (24), Wataru Endo (23), and Ryota Oshima (23), who all appear to have been cast aside for now.

Nagaki’s call up adds weight to that theory, with him earning his national team bow at the ripe old age of 28 – making him the least experienced yet second oldest outfielder against Oman. He didn’t look especially nervous though and put in an assured display at the base of midfield, suggesting that Halilhodzic may consider him as the alternative to Hasebe if the captain is injured now that Toshihiro Aoyama also seems to have been removed from consideration.

“The coach hasn’t spoken to me personally about why he called me up, but I think he rates my ability to battle for the ball, and so I want to do my best to demonstrate that ability when I play,” Nagaki said.

“I think defensive midfield is a position that can really become the key for the team, and so there are times when it is important to rein in the selfish instincts about what I can do and to consider the positioning of my midfield partner. While paying attention to that balance I want to be able to go forward when the opportunity is there too and hope I can be able to show my quality in that way.”

Tuesday’s Saudi Arabia game marks the half-way point of the final round of qualifiers though, and the time for testing things out is drawing to a close for Halilhodzic. The team needs consistency if it is to make it to a sixth straight World Cup, and in order to achieve that it is vital that the coach settles on his preferred combination in the middle of the park as soon as possible.


Reds lock up playoff slot with draw

Urawa Reds just about sealed first place in the overall rankings in J1 on Thursday, drawing 1-1 draw with Yokohama F.Marinos to finish two points ahead  of Kawasaki Frontale…

The Japan News, Friday 4th November, 2016

SAITAMA – Urawa Reds booked itself a place in the final of the J.League playoffs in front of a bumper 56,841 crowd on Thursday, despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Yokohama F.Marinos.

Japan midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi gave Reds the lead in the 66th minute, but Marinos substitute Quenten Martinus equalized in the 85th to make for a nervy end to the game for Mihailo Petrovic’s side.

Even so, Reds hung onto top spot in the overall rankings and earned a bye direct to the two-legged final as closest challenger Kawasaki Frontale surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at home to Gamba Osaka.

“Our target was to finish the season at the top of the table and I’m delighted we were able to achieve that,” Kashiwagi said.

“Last year we weren’t able to make it to the final,” he added with reference to Reds’ loss to Gamba in the 2015 semifinal. “Now we want to make sure we win both matches in order to become the champion.”

Had Frontale beaten Gamba they would have leapfrogged Reds, but despite establishing a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Tatsuya Hasegawa and Koji Miyoshi, they conceded three times in 12 second half minutes to finish on 72 points, two behind Urawa.

They will now face a semifinal bout against third-placed Kashima Antlers in the postseason Championship series on Nov. 23.

Back in Saitama, Reds started the brighter of the two sides and Shinzo Koroki headed the first chance of the game wide in the 8th minute.

Urawa Reds v. Yokohama F.Marinos, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 3rd November, 2016

Reds continued to dominate possession for the remainder of the first half, and Toshiyuki Takagi went closest to opening the scoring with a couple of decent efforts, one of which was headed off the line by Park Jeong-su in the 30th minute.

Reds came out with extra impetus at the start of the second half and almost took the lead in the 48th minute, as Wataru Endo tested Tetsuya Enomoto from close range after a Kashiwagi corner.

Manabu Saito fired a warning shot for Marinos in the 51st minute, but his effort was blocked by a combination of Takagi and Shusaku Nishikawa.

Reds began to turn the screw in the final half hour, with Takahiro Sekine and Tadanari Lee both drawing saves from Enomoto, and the home side’s superiority was rewarded in the 66th minute.

Sekine drew yet another stop from Enomoto after a tidy passing move, but Kashiwagi made no mistake with the rebound, slamming home from inside the six yard box.

Martinus made Reds sweat on their fate as the clock ticked down, racing onto a through ball from Sho Ito and converting in style to equalize with five minutes to play, but the scoring ended there and Reds’ point was enough to keep them top.

Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus was relegated for the first time after losing 3-1 at home to Shonan Bellmare. That let Albirex Niigata off the hook after its 1-0 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, as well as Ventforet Kofu, which lost 1-0 to Sagan Tosu.

Meanwhile, Jubilo Iwata made sure of its survival with a 1-0 win away to Vegalta Sendai, Kashima lost 1-0 to Vissel Kobe, Omiya Ardija went down 1-0 to FC Tokyo, and Kashiwa Reysol hammered Avispa Fukuoka 4-0.


Silver(ware) collectors

It took Urawa Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic a decade to win his first top flight title in Japan, but now he’s finally got his hands on a trophy it may become something of a habit…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 28th October, 2016

It had been a long time coming – 3,258 days, to be precise – but Urawa Reds’ triumph in the Levain Cup on 15th October ended their barren spell without a title and could mark the start of a new period of success for Japan’s biggest club.

The last time Reds got their hands on a trophy – a real one, let’s not pretend last year’s first stage crown counts – was when they won the ACL in 2007, and although winning a competition they joined at the quarter final stage is a little different to being crowned Asia’s best club, the impact the penalty shoot-out win over Gamba Osaka could have should not be underestimated.

Tadanari Lee, whose goal with his first touch levelled things up at 1-1 and took the final to extra time and then penalties, certainly cut a relieved figure in the mixed zone after helping his side to a first domestic title in 10 years, and suggested that a weight had been lifted from the shoulders of everyone at the club, including coach Mihailo Petrovic.

“I don’t know what the cause was before [for Reds’ inability to cross the line in first place], but I feel like today it changed,” he said. “Misha was known as the ‘silver collector’, but now he’s won a title and once you’ve taken that first step forward there’s no need to look back.”

Indeed, it seemed as though Petrovic was already looking ahead to the next challenge – and possibly even the next, next challenge – as he fulfilled his media duties after the final, barely breaking into a smile and instead focusing on the intricate details of the game and wondering aloud if the press thought his team deserved to win.

“You can talk about luck, and of course it plays a part, with today, for instance, the opponent hitting the post but the ball not going in and then us winning on penalties,” he said with reference to Hiroto Goya’s 120nd-minute effort that just stayed out for Gamba.

“When it comes to penalties I personally think that luck plays a big part, but then last year in the Championship semi final Gamba almost scored an own goal but it hit the post and then they countered and scored. Over that game as a whole I think we were unlucky, but then maybe some people felt that they deserved to have won the game. For today’s game, how does everyone take our win: did we deserve it or were we lucky?”

An obsession with the process rather than the result is typical of a manager who has now spent a decade fine-tuning his philosophy in the J.League.

“This is the kind of coach I am,” he said when asked about his apparent lack of joy at finally picking up a winner’s medal. “I don’t know if I become a better coach by winning a title. Personally I don’t think anything has changed.

Football Channel, Friday 28th October, 2016 (Getty Images)

“If I wasn’t able to win a title here and left Urawa I have confidence that I would be able to get another job – maybe in Tottori or Fukuoka – I have confidence that I can build a good team capable of playing good football wherever I go. I have a deep love for my style of football. For me if there is no love of the game, no enjoyment of the game, then it is not football.”

One week after the Levain Cup final I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima coach Hajime Moriyasu about his mentor’s success, and he also emphasized Petrovic’s desire to have his team play football in a certain way.

“Misha came to Japan and coached at Sanfrecce, laying the base for the club, and then moved on to a big club like Urawa where titles are expected, and he’s continued to work at playing the same football even when under that pressure,” he said.

“He hadn’t won a title previously, but they’d always been challenging and I think that’s important. You’ll move up and down but if you play good football, high level football, and are able to keep doing so then it will naturally lead to titles.

“If you win one title then it increases the possibility of winning more. But the most important thing is to play good football and remain in and around the top of the table. To keep doing the same things as you’ve done and tie that up with positive results.”

The stats back that up, with Reds finishing third, sixth, second, and third (second in the overall table) in J1 in Petrovic’s four full seasons in charge, compared with seventh, sixth, tenth, and fifteenth in the previous four years. This season they are guaranteed to finish at least second overall.

The Levain Cup triumph should have added a newfound sense of belief though, and now they have finally tasted success there will be an extra drive to go all the way in the league too.

“He was happy in the instant that it was decided, but he’s looking ahead and thinking about what’s next,” Lee said when asked about his coach’s reaction to the win over Gamba. “The cup is the cup, what we’re aiming for is to win the league and appear in international competition (the Club World Cup). I’m really excited to see how far Urawa Reds’ football can go.”

Now that Petrovic has helped them break through the barrier from silver to silverware it looks highly unlikely that Reds will be waiting another decade for their next trophy.


Reds win Levain Cup on penalties

My match report from today’s Levain Cup final between Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka, for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Saturday 15th October, 2016

SAITAMA — Urawa Reds picked up their first domestic silverware in a decade on Saturday, winning the Levain Cup by defeating Gamba Osaka 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw at Saitama Stadium.

Japan Olympic captain Wataru Endo was the hero for Mihailo Petrovic’s side, slamming home the decisive spot kick to deliver Reds their first trophy since the 2006 J.League title.

Ademilson gave Gamba the lead in the 17th minute after a sensational solo effort, but substitute Tadanari Lee leveled things up with his first touch in the 76th minute. With neither team able to add to the score after that the final went to extra time and then penalties, where Endo delivered Reds’ second League Cup crown.

“Until now as a team, and for me individually as a coach, we have been unable to achieve success in the decisive matches, so we were playing this game under that kind of pressure,” Petrovic said after winning his first top flight title in Japan and bringing Reds’ dry spell to an end, to leave them in with a chance of claiming a clean sweep this season.

“They say that the first title is the most difficult to win, but after their coach [Kenta Hasegawa] won his first many more followed,” he added with regards to Gamba’s treble in 2014. “Hopefully the same will now happen for us.”

The first meaningful action of the game came in the 9th minute when a Takahiro Sekine effort from range was tipped past the post by Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.

Gamba’s first half-chance came in the 14th minute as Ademilson tricked his way into the penalty area with some fancy footwork, but Reds managed to scramble the ball to safety after his cut back.

The Brazilian was celebrating three minutes later though, after giving his side the lead with a superb individual goal.

Levain Cup final 2016, Gamba Osaka v. Urawa Reds. Saitama Stadium, Saturday 15th October

Yasuhito Endo won possession midway inside his own half and stabbed the ball forward to Ademilson, who shrugged off Wataru Endo before applying the afterburners. He left Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Moriwaki in his wake and then kept his composure to nudge past the advancing Shusaku Nishikawa from inside the area.

Reds rallied well after falling behind and almost pulled level in the 21st minute as Makino headed narrowly off target from a corner.

The J.League leaders continued to have the better of things in the second half and made a handful of presentable chances, with Sekine missing the best of them after being denied by Higashiguchi in a one-on-one in the 55th minute.

Reds did manage to pull level 20 minutes later, as Lee made an instant impression off the bench.

Toshiyuki Takagi saw an effort tipped past the post by Higashiguchi in what would be his last contribution before being replaced by Lee, who lost his marker with ease from the resultant corner and headed home to make it 1-1.

Neither side was able to find the net again in the remaining 14 minutes or half an hour of extra time — although Hiroto Goya went incredibly close for Gamba in the very last minute, seeing an effort hit the post and then roll agonizingly along the line before being hacked away by Moriwaki.

Goya’s suffering was compounded in the shootout after Nishikawa saved his kick to hand Reds the advantage. Lee then converted to put Reds in front, and although Yasuhito Endo kept Gamba in the contest by scoring his penalty his namesake then did the same for Reds’ to seal the victory.


Japan in need of pick-me-up down under

Japan’s game against Australia tomorrow night provides the sternest test of the final round of World Cup qualifiers so far, and will demonstrate whether this group of players is as tough mentally as coach Vahid Halilhodzic insists… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

There was a lot of talk about ‘mental strength’ and ‘courage’ after Japan’s 2-1 win over Iraq on Thursday night, when in truth neither was on display in huge quantities.

Yes, Vahid Halilhodzic’s side did claim the three points on offer with a dramatic late winner, but last gasp wonder strikes can always be looked at in two ways; as a signifier that a team doesn’t give up or, conversely, that it isn’t able to finish opponents off in a more effective manner.

Bearing in mind the defeat against UAE in the Samurai Blue’s previous home match and the fact that this inability to control games at the highest level is becoming a recurring problem, any claims that this team is especially resilient would seem optimistic.

“We often use the word ‘naïve’ but I think the players demonstrated very strong courage – I think it was the first time the players were shouting on the pitch and I think that was rewarded at the very end,” Halilhodzic said after the game. “I don’t think that today was a good victory, but I think it was a courageous victory. Even the strongest teams in the world can’t always win with a beautiful victory.”

That is undoubtedly true, but what the best teams do do is dominate games and adjust the tempo depending on the situation. That is also a way of exhibiting mental strength and courage. Japan scored first against UAE and Iraq but on both occasions failed to drive home their advantage after moving in front and allowed the opposition to pull level.

There is absolutely no margin for error on Tuesday against Australia, and if Japan allow the hosts to dictate the pace of the game in Melbourne then they will be returning empty handed and even further off the pace in Group B.

That fact has not escaped Keisuke Honda, who was as forthright as ever after Thursday’s narrow win.

“We understand the things the coach is asking of us but football is not only about doing what the coach says, all kinds of situations arise outside of that and the players need to have a sense for and be able to respond to those things,” he said, before turning his attention to the Australia game.

“There’s a way of playing away from home, we need to be more intelligent. Things like a player using their body to keep the ball for two or three seconds or where balls are cleared to will change the situation – it’s very precise things. Everyone on the pitch understands that in difficult spells it comes down to each individual decision.

“We’ve all been playing football for maybe 20 years and know what to do so we have no option but to believe in what we have been building. If there isn’t a harmony between the physical and mental sides then it isn’t possible to win away against Australia.”

One particular area of concern is the team’s ongoing inability to deal with set pieces.

Japan v. Iraq, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 6th October, 2016

“I think Australia will try to take advantage of those even more, so we can’t give away too many free kicks, and when we do we have to make sure to mark tighter than today,” Maya Yoshida said after the win over Iraq.

The tendency to resort to route one football as the clock runs down is also not ideal for a team centred upon possession-based and technical football, and that will be even truer against Australian players who are more than used to contesting aerial battles.

“Today we went direct and it worked out ok for us, but I think that will be more difficult against Australia,” Yoshida conceded, although he bristled a little at the suggestion that the approach doesn’t suit Japan’s style after it forced the winner against Iraq.

“Well, we made the chance today didn’t we?” he said in reference to the late push which produced Hotaru Yamaguchi’s wonder strike, before admitting that the long ball approach wasn’t something the team had worked on in training.

“No, we didn’t practice it, we didn’t have time. But I think everyone understands how it works; it’s not so difficult. Anyway, maybe it’s up to you guys to write whether ‘power play’ suits Japan or not.”

Whether the coach or players admit it or not there is certainly a tension in the side at the moment, and qualification for a sixth straight World Cup finals is looking increasingly uncertain.

Of course, in football form can turn in the blink of an eye, and just because Japan is stuttering out of the starting blocks in the final round of qualifying it doesn’t mean they can’t correct their stride for the business end of the campaign. A first ever win away to Australia would certainly provide some solid foundations on which to build that recovery, and Shinji Okazaki sees no reason why that can’t be achieved.

“We believe we can destroy that jinx,” the Leicester City striker – who has learned a thing or two about upsetting the odds in the past year – said on Thursday.

“In all honesty they don’t have as many players doing well in Europe as they used to – of course we have plenty of squad players too – but I don’t think they have too much confidence and it will be a really close battle. We both have our pride, but I don’t think they are especially full of confidence at the moment and we have to try and take advantage of that.

“When it comes down to it I think it will be 50/50. We have to be able to beat that kind of big opponent, and to that end I think this win was very important for us.”

As the cliché goes, in football the next game is always the most important though, and if Japan come out on the wrong end of the result against the Socceroos then they will certainly need a lot of courage to get themselves back on course for Russia.


Reds roll closer to 2nd stage title

Urawa Reds picked up an impressive win over old rivals Gamba Osaka on Saturday, cruising to victory and the top of the table…

The Japan News, Sunday 2nd October, 2016

SAITAMA – Urawa Reds kept themselves in pole position for the J.League second stage title on Saturday, crushing Gamba Osaka 4-0 at Saitama Stadium.

Toshiyuki Takagi set Reds on the way to victory in just the sixth minute, before Yuki Muto doubled their lead five minutes after half time. Tomoya Ugajin added a third in the 83rd minute before substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic added the gloss with three minutes to play.

Reds’ fourth consecutive win also leaves them locked in a tight battle with Kawasaki Frontale for the overall title, putting them top of the combined rankings for a few hours at least with Frontale to play away to Vissel Kobe later Saturday night.

Mihailo Petrovic’s side is already guaranteed a place in the postseason playoffs having ensured a top three finish overall, but the team with the most points combined over the two stages progresses directly to the final.

“For us we’re not looking at anything other than being the yearly champion,” Ugajin said postmatch.

“I think most of the players didn’t even realize we’d already earned a ticket for the playoffs. All we’re targeting is to be this year’s champion, and that enabled us to put in this kind of performance.”

Reds certainly started with intent in front of 43,415 fans in Saitama, flying out of the traps and penning Gamba back in their own half before moving in front after a crisp move in the sixth minute.

Yoshiaki Komai carved in from the right and found Yosuke Kashiwagi lurking on the edge of the box, with the Japan midfielder instantly playing a ball into the area for Muto to cross. Shinzo Koroki couldn’t quite make contact at the near post but Takagi was on hand in the center to tap home.

Urawa continued to dominate possession after moving in front, and Gamba – whose chances of winning the second stage or overtaking Kashima Antlers to earn a playoff spot in the overall rankings were all-but extinguished here – were limited to a tame Shu Kurata shot from range in the 23rd minute, which went straight to Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.


Muto provided a cushion for Reds in the 50th minute when his effort from just outside the area took a slight deflection off Gamba defender Takaharu Nishino before flying past Masaaki Higashiguchi.

Gamba’s afternoon went from bad to worse nine minutes later when forward Ademilson was shown a straight red card for lashing out at Tomoaki Makino, and Ugajin calmly sidefooted a volley into the net to make it 3-0 in the 83rd minute.

Ljubijankic stabbed home the final goal of the game from close range four minutes later, after fellow substitute Tadanari Lee had kept the ball alive in the penalty area.

The comprehensive win ended Reds’ run of four straight defeats to Gamba, and Petrovic was delighted to finally get the better of his club’s bitter rival.

“We could have won any of the recent games against Gamba too, but if you just look at the results they have all been negative,” he said. “We attacked well but made mistakes in those games and were hit on the counter, so preparing this week we knew we had to be more disciplined here.

“Today we played really aggressively. I think we outdid the opponents in terms of movement too, and were attacking from the outset.”

Elsewhere, the battle for first division survival is also heating up, with Nagoya Grampus and Albirex Niigata both picking up vital victories in their bids to avoid relegation.

Grampus claimed their third win in four games and moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since slipping down to 16th on 9 July by cruising past Avispa Fukuoka 5-0. Kensuke Nagai claimed a hat-trick while Ha Dae-sung and Ryusuke Sakai also found the net.

With their loss, Avispa were assured of filling one of the three relegation spots.

Meanwhile, Koichiro Katafuchi got off to a dream start as Albirex manager as Ryohei Yamazaki scored an 89th minute winner to deliver a 2-1 victory away to Jubilo Iwata and lift them to 14th in the table.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

  • RT @tphoto2005: 2016-12-3, Saitama, Japan,3日の2016Jリーグチャンピオンシップ決勝の浦和1−2鹿島戦の前半40分に鹿島の1点目を決める金崎夢生選手 Mu Kanazaki https://t.co/xSDb1il2QU 22 hours ago
  • Champions Kashima Antlers greet their fans after sealing a dramatic eighth J1 title. https://t.co/1OJiu22n4Y 1 day ago
  • And there we have it. Kashima Antlers, who finished 15 points behind Urawa Reds over 34 games, are 2016 J.League champions. 1 day ago

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