As the dust settles on another epic Urawa Reds collapse, their defeat at the hands of Kashima Antlers ushers in the return of the single stage season – and not a moment too soon for most J.League observers. It would be remiss of this site not to stick the boot in.
As most people are aware, Kashima won the first stage, and Urawa won the second stage as well as taking the overall year crown for accumulating the most points – as is the norm. Kashima finished a full fifteen points behind Urawa, but were given the opportunity to usurp them as J.League champions due their stellar first half of the season, a half in which they won 12 out of their 17 games. But Urawa’s full season stats spell out just how “unlucky” they can count themselves:
- Most wins – 23
- Most points – 74
- Second most goals – 61
- Least conceded – 28
That they still didn’t win the league despite finishing top in almost every element of a league is somehow very Urawa – even when they ‘win’ the league, they don’t. And none of this disguises the fact that they had it in their hands, being 2-0 up on aggregate with only 50 minutes of the second leg at home to defend that lead. Neither does it cover up the monumental error that Tomoaki Makino made that let in Yuma Suzuki for the penalty. “Rules are rules” as Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara said rather diplomatically after the game – the response of a person that knows he is in a tough spot justifying their title of champions. But there are very few supporters of any club in the country that don’t feel a pang of sympathy for Reds on a purely footballing level.
“Rules are rules” – Kashima played the system, and won, as was their right & duty to do so. It isn’t the purpose of this piece to have a go at Antlers; After all, it wasn’t their fault that the format allowed this situation to arise. The man who ushered in these “rules” – J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai – looked very sheepish presenting Reds captain Yuki Abe with the “runners up” shield whilst going on to present Kashima with no less than three trophies. He probably wouldn’t say, but it is hard to think of a situation that he would’ve wanted to arisen less than the one which occurred on Saturday night in Saitama.
The overly convoluted system drawn up by the J.League has seen a lot of supporter pushback. The league will say that it was brought in to create guaranteed excitement at the end of the season – and you could make the argument that it has done just that. There were just shy of 60,000 people at Saitama Stadium on Saturday night, and last year Hiroshima’s Big Arch was full when Sanfrecce secured the title. But the pay-off for that artificially created excitement is that you leave yourself open to devaluing the competition. While it would be wrong to say that Kashima took it easy in the second stage, their results – losing nine of their seventeen second stage games, seem to point to the fact that they knew they had little to play for.
Urawa supporters were amongst the most vocal in complaining about the two stage system before it came (back) into play two years ago, and they’re the ones who have been bitten in the arse by it.
The J.League is heading towards more traditional territory next year, reverting to a whoever-has-the-most-points-wins-the-league season. With two brand names returning to J1 in Shimizu S-Pulse and Cerezo Osaka, and thus bringing back two traditional derbies in Shizuoka & Osaka, J1 should be on to a good thing next year.
Good riddance, 2 stage season. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.