This season's J.League champions have their eyes on a much bigger prize. Here's Michael Hudson.
In the end the destination of the J.League title was never in any serious doubt. "We prepared for this from the very first day of the season," victorious coach Nelsinho Baptista said after a 3-1 win at Urawa Reds confirmed his side as Japan’s eighth championship winning club. "The players did everything I asked of them to achieve this goal.''
Champions of the semi-professional Japan Soccer League in 1972 and two-time Emperor’s Cup winners later the same decade, the Sun Kings’ hadn’t won a major honour since the 1999 J.League Cup and were relegated as recently as two seasons ago. Although Baptista had arrived too late to save the team from dropping into Japan’s second-tier, he spent the close season gathering together the bulk of the squad who have since lifted back-to-back league titles, joining the Dixie Dean-inspired Everton side of the early 1930s, Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town and the Kaiserslautern team of Otto Rehhagel as one of the small band of second division champions to follow up with a top-flight title win.
Renowned for his bold substitutions and constant tinkering with his team – Reysol had 27 different line-ups in their 34 league games and ended the season without a single ever present - the wily Baptista is now in his third spell in Japan after previously coaching at Verdy Kawasaki and Nagoya Grampus. The team ethic was undoubtedly a crucial element in the club’s title success. "The reason we got the title wasn't because of one player, we all achieved it together. Even at training we were always working together…We have played as one group throughout the year," said the Brazilian Leandro Domingues, the club’s top scorer with 15 league goals. So too was the resilience imbued by their season in J2, the Sun Kings coming from behind to win on seven occasions and drawing only three league games all season.
At the head of the table for most of the year, when they did stumble – most notably in a 3-1 loss to relegation-threatened Omiya Ardija, a 5-0 defeat against Cerezo Osaka and a six goal trouncing at Jubilo Iwata – the newly-promoted side righted themselves quickly, September’s win over defending champions Nagoya and a seven-game unbeaten run at the end of the season both proving vital as the chasing pack closed in. “To win such a difficult league gives me real pride,” Baptista said, “and I have to thank and congratulate the players for all their hard work over this year and last."
Last year was when most of the foundations of Kashiwa’s first ever J.League title were laid. Baptista brought a group of young players such as 21-year-old right back Hiroki Sakai, Japan U22 midfielder Yuki Otsu and forward Junya Tanaka, whose 13 goals this season earned him a recent call-up to the national squad, into the team, adding to an experienced core which included Domingues, captain Hidekazu Otani and midfielder Masakatsu Sawa, an ex-River Plate youth player who’d spent three seasons in Peru.
Although Otsu departed for Borussia Mönchengladbach earlier this year, former Shimizu S-Pulse captain Akihiro Hyodo arrived, while 33-year-old left winger Jorge Wagner, a marquee pre-season signing from Sao Paolo, contributed eleven goals, including the opener in the title-clinching win at Urawa. “Last year we were in J2, and at the start of the season winning the title wasn't something that looked possible," defender Naoya Kondo told The Japan Times. "But we had a good result on the opening day and then won a lot of games after that, and that gave us the confidence to believe we could go on to achieve something”.
The season’s far from over for Reysol and Baptista, whose next domestic fixture is a trip to the side they deposed as champions, runners-up Nagoya Grampus, in the last eight of the Emperor’s Cup. Before that there’s Auckland City in this week’s opening game of the FIFA Club World Cup, with Monterrey, Santos and possibly Barcelona awaiting the winners. “We have achieved one goal with this victory. But we have another goal to win the next game and the game after the next," said the veteran Brazilian coach. "We shall not change the way in which we have produced results."
Michael can be found on Twitter @DolphinHotel.