Up for the Cup

Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka are very evenly matched heading into this weekend’s Levain Cup final, and victory will almost certainly be dealt to whichever side best keeps its concentration at Saitama Stadium… (日本語版)

This weekend’s YBC Levain Cup final looks set to be a tight encounter between two evenly-matched teams on paper, and the result could serve to energise whichever of Nagoya Grampus or Cerezo Osaka emerge victorious.

For Nagoya it would represent a first trophy since they were crowned J.League champions in 2010, and serve as encouragement that the team is moving in the right direction under Massimo Ficcadenti.

In the earlier part of this season Grampus looked like they would be Kawasaki Frontale’s closest challenger for the league title, but back-to-back defeats to Toru Oniki’s side in the spring and then a dip in form in the summer saw them slip down the rankings, and the best they can hope for now in J1 is to match last year’s third place finish and return to the Asian Champions League.

Nagoya were Japan’s last representative standing in continental competition this season, but despite outlasting Kawasaki, Gamba Osaka, and Cerezo in the ACL they ultimately exited fairly meekly to Pohang Steelers of South Korea in the quarter-final. That 3-0 loss on 17 October was a slightly bizarre result after Grampus gave as good as they got in the first half and could even have gone in ahead at the break with slightly better finishing, but they were too flat in the second period and never looked like finding a way back into the game after going behind to Lim Sang-hyub’s goal eight minutes after the break.

Ficcadenti is of course well known for his disciplined approach to the game, with his sides always centred upon well-organised defence and currently in possession of the second best record in that regard in J1 (just 26 goals conceded in 33 games). On the flip side, he rarely authorises his charges to take the handbrake off and really go for opponents, and despite the array of attacking talent Nagoya have at their disposal they have only managed to find the net 37 times in the league this year – just six times more than bottom-placed Yokohama FC.

Cerezo, meanwhile, have been in patchy form all season – and, it could even be argued, for the best part of a decade.

Akio Kogiku taking over from Levir Culpi at the end of August represented the 11th managerial change in the 10 years since Culpi ended his second period at the club at the close of the 2011 season (the Brazilian also accounted for two of those subsequent changes after returning in 2012 and at the start of this season), and the longest consecutive spell anyone has had in charge is the two seasons spent at the helm by Yoon Jong-hwan (2017 and 2018) and his successor Miguel Angel Lotina (2019 and 2020).

That period has unsurprisingly failed to produce anything close to consistency for the pink half of Osaka, with the lowest ebb being two years spent in J2 between 2015 and 2016 and the high point a domestic cup double under Yoon in 2017.

Like Nagoya Cerezo do have a wealth of talented players, and claiming a first piece of silverware in four years could serve as a solid foundation from which to build for this squad. On their day Cerezo are capable of beating any opponent – as they showed last weekend against high-flying Yokohama F.Marinos – although the opposite is also true and three points can rarely be seen as a given in their fixtures.

The main issue this campaign has undoubtedly been a lack of a consistent scorer, and even though they have struck more in the league than Grampus (42 times in 33 games), they have similarly lacked an outright goal-getter, with their three top marksmen Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (six goals, none in the last nine games), Yoshito Okubo (six goals, five of which came in the first five games of the season), and Mutsuki Kato (six goals, one in the last 12 games).

As the cliche goes, recent form can of course go out of the window in cup finals and what ultimately decides the victor is which side manages to win its individual battles on the day. This showpiece doesn’t look like being any different in that regard, and there are three head-to-heads that look particularly key to deciding the destination of the Levain trophy.

With both teams craving control of proceedings the eye is immediately drawn to the centre of the park and the match-up between Riki Harakawa and Sho Inagaki. Both are capable of breaking up their opponent’s flow with impeccably-timed interceptions, getting things moving for their own side with crisp passing, and are also no strangers to lashing home efforts of their own from 20-plus yards.

The wide areas will also prove pivotal to the outcome of this contest. It is vital that Cerezo can get their ball-playing wingers in behind to breach Nagoya’s resolute rearguard as often as possible, and with that in mind the tussle between Yutaka Yoshida and Sakamoto promises to be especially fascinating.

Finally, whichever of Jakub Świerczok and Ayumu Seko manages to get the upper hand at the business end of the pitch will most likely be collecting a winner’s medal at full time. The Pole has shown since arriving in August that he is absolutely lethal when given a clear sight of goal – or even half of one – and so Seko is going to need to have a near-faultless game at the heart of Cerezo’s defence to prevent that happening.

With the likes of Takashi Inui, Mateus, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Naoki Maeda, Hiroaki Okuno, and of course Yoichiro Kakitani also in the mix there are plenty of match-winners on each side, however, and things look as finely balanced as they could be heading into what promises to be a gripping final.

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October 2021

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