We’ve had the first stage (winners: Kashima), the second stage (winners: Urawa) so we might as well get set for the Championship Stage. This is when the J.League champions of 2017 will be crowned. Regista gathered together J.League observers to ask them the simplest of questions: Who will win the J.League Championship and why?

J.League Regista

It is hard to see past Urawa. Overall winners, they have the strongest squad out of the three teams, and despite drawing on the final day against Yokohama F.Marinos, they avoided their seemingly annual letdown/choke.

An argument could be made that that means the collapse is yet to come, because that is what Urawa seems to do. But I get the feeling that this year will be different, and it is my feeling that it will be Yuki Abe who lifts the trophy come December 3rd.

I think that it will be Kashima Antlers that Reds see off in the final. I know recent form doesn’t dictate that Antlers will beat Frontale away from home, but I have this sneaking suspicion in the back of mind that Antlers’ season since July/August has been focused on this game. I think they’ll be prepared and think they’ll win by a solitary goal.

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Will Kashima be hosting a J.League championship game?

Gabriele Anello – J.League Regista’s Italian ideas man

Well, let’s all first celebrate that someone put an end to this two-stage misery. I thought one-stage format would never come back and instead we’re already celebrating its return.

I don’t think there’s too much space for imagination. Sure, the semifinal could reserve a surprise: Kashima has been awful throughout the second stage (11th!), but winning a single game could be a possibility, because Kawasaki seems frustrated with the end of Kazama’s cycle. Manager’s leaving, Okubo is going across the Tamagawa river and some players could be on their way out. Plus, being champions after 45 minutes of the last match and then losing it is SO Kawasaki. Just like being eliminated from this version of Antlers.

Could Kengo Nakamura get the trophy his career deserves?

I think Urawa Reds will win J. League Championship. First of all, it would only be fair: they topped overall table and IMHO they should win this one. Second, it’s a two-legged challenge: I don’t think Kawasaki or Kashima could beat Urawa in this manner. Third and for me most important: winner gets a spot for FIFA Club World Cup. Urawa is already out of Emperor’s Cup and it’d be interesting to see them in this competition.

Actually, with Sanfrecce being 3rd last year, I think Urawa has some real chances of getting in the final against Real Madrid. If they play like in the last two months, there’s gonna be a chance of excellence for Japanese club football.

Sam Robson  – Football Radar analyst/podcast star

As one of the many detractors of the two-stage system, I am hoping that Urawa Reds, who finished first in the overall table, can secure the title via the Championship Stage Playoffs.

Reds should go in as favourites, they have been the most consistent team throughout the season, have the strongest overall squad, and play the best football in the division. They also have the bye to the final meaning they do not have to navigate a tricky Semi-Final. Victory in the Levain Cup final last month should have given the squad the confidence going into these playoffs, but I fear that the manner in which they lost last weekend’s Emperor’s Cup tie to Kawasaki Frontale, letting a lead slip three times, could undo that good work and see old frailties re-emerge.

For me though, despite a fairly appalling second stage in which Antlers never really got going, I fancy them to take the title. In the last couple of games there have been signs that they might be returning to form at just the right time. They dominated Kawasaki on Matchday 33 and were very unfortunate to lose, they were also unlucky to lose to Vissel Kobe on Matchday 34, but put that right with a fine display in a 2-1 victory over Vissel in the Emperor’s Cup last weekend. I feel Antlers might take advantage of a depleted Frontale side, who may still be without the likes of Kengo Nakamura, Ryota Oshima and Yu Kobayashi, in the Semi-Final.

Then in a two-legged tie with Reds, it would be fascinating, but with Antlers’ pedigree in knock-out football, I would not be surprised if they overcame Urawa. To see the team which finished 3rd overall win the league, would not sit well with me, but I have a gut feeling that that is the way it’s going to go.

Will Urawa be celebrating come Final day?

Chris – Yokohama F.Marinos supporter from Australia

The 2016 J.League season is about to end and the most deserving 3 teams remain. Urawa finished top of the year-long ladder, showing consistency for the entire 10 months which is why they’re my pick for the 2016 J.League Championship. Urawa’s supporters have already had a taste of silverware in the Levain Cup, but would have no hesitations in trading the Biscuit Cup for the BIG one. Despite fielding a team of pop-star wannabes and Z-grade celebs, The Reds have quality & experienced players in every position, if they were to fall short of the J.League title, the only reasoning would lie within their heads.

Kawasaki Frontale challenged Urawa the entire length of the season only to fall short when it mattered. Their loss to Gamba in the final round would have helped secure them 1st place but it wasn’t to be. This final round loss could serve to galvanise the team. Kazama’s men have scored the most goals this season and their key forward players Okubo & Kobayashi will need to step up in their semi-final vs Kashima. With the Kazama era at Kawasaki due to end alongside star striker Okubo, they’ll both be desperate to finish on a high. This Championship Series would also be club Captain Kengo Nakamura’s big chance for lifting silverware which is potentially only 3 matches & 270 minutes away.

Kashima Antlers, apart from the location of their stadium, there’s nothing to dislike about this club. The J.League’s most successful club is probably not favoured to win the championship series. Their team doesn’t have the same glitz & glamour of Urawa or the attacking threat of Kawasaki, but they compete well in all areas of the pitch. A strong young team with representative players right down their spine, Kashima will have nothing to lose in their semi-final vs Frontale.

My Pick for the Championship Final Game – Urawa Reds vs Kawasaki Frontale

My Pick for the Championship Winners – Urawa Reds

Most on Screen Time – Tomoaki Makino (editor – I completely agree!)

Odd boots, immovable hair, solid defence – Makino is never far from the news

Tony Dee – another of the Australian F.Marinos mafia

Kawasaki should go into the do-or-die Semi Final at home against Kashima this Wednesday with some well-founded confidence, having won 4 of their last 6 matches and being undefeated versus Antlers in the regular season. Even for the second tightest defence in the league it will be difficult to stop the Frontale scoring machine headed by Okubo Yoshito and Kobayashi Yu (editor – although there is doubt over whether Kobayashi will be fit for the semi-final), both with 15 goals a piece and supported by a Nakamura Kengo in league MVP form.

When the two teams last met just over 3 weeks ago, Kawasaki only needed the one goal to take all the points home from Kashima Stadium whilst the first stage winners limped into the Championship series having lost their last 4 league matches. As much as recent form is a good guide leading into an important match, we also know that in a one-off game anything can happen, and the pedigree of Kashima Antlers in the Cup format is unsurpassed in the J.League. The dispatching of a red-hot Vissel Kobe in the fourth round of the Emperor’s Cup lends some weight to their current credentials in a sudden-death situation.

However, despite this, I do think that Frontale – also buoyed by a dramatic Emperor’s Cup win over Urawa – will be too strong for a Kashima team that has been unsettled since their first stage victory and also finished the season poorly, with some question marks raised over it’s defence, despite the good record overall.

In an Urawa versus Kawasaki Championship Play-off over two legs, match fitness will be an issue for a Reds team that hasn’t played a competitive fixture in almost one month. Particularly so in the first fixture played at Todoroki, the venue of Reds penalty shoot-out defeat to Frontale in the Emperor’s Cup. Frontale have done what all and sundry have for years been saying that they needed to do – they’ve tightened up their defence enough to be serious contenders. They’ve conceded less than 40 goals (39 in 2016 vs 48 in 2015) whilst being able to maintain their attacking flair and goal-scoring power. Reds have Koroki and Muto upfront to counter Okubo and Kobayashi, and a bit of an X-factor in Sekine with an improved Lee Tadanari coming off the bench. But they’ll will need Kashiwagi to lift after a fairly disappointing season, according to avid Reds’ watchers at least.

All told, I can’t help but feel that Urawa have found a better balance between attack and defence, and the stingiest defence in the league will be the deciding factor over the course of two legs. They’ll have been stung by that Emperor’s Cup loss, and have the monkey off their back in terms of winning finals in clinching the Levain Cup back in October. And Urawa are not incapable of scoring themselves, bagging three against Frontale in that Cup loss and over 60 for the season, second only to – Kawasaki, of course.

As a Marinos supporter it’s a difficult to choose a champion between these two teams, but perhaps for this Marinos fan at least, it’s the lesser of two evils!

So, the waiting is almost over. The semi-final takes place tomorrow and the winner will move on to face Urawa in the final. 

For their time and outstanding writing, I’d like to give my thanks to:

I hope everyone enjoys reading their opinions as much as I did!

Title picture taken from jleague.jp

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