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Emperor’s Cup Final Preview

Sunday 31st December 2017

The J.League is over. The title was decided on the last day in a true photo finish. As foretold, Kashiwa Antlers rued not taking their chances. Kawasaki stole the league crown on the final match day on goal difference.

But there’s one more trophy left to award. Yokohama F. Marinos take on Cerezo Osaka at the illustrious Saitama Stadium in the 97th Emperor’s Cup Final.

Although Tokyo is 20º closer to the equator than Edinburgh, Japan tends to get a bit cold and snowy in January. That's why football rises with the late February sun and sets in near December's end in this land. Hokkaido, in the north, can be horribly cold anyway. Throw in a January snowstorm and conditions would be unplayable.

The fixture list allows the Emperor’s Cup to take centre stage for the Christmas and New Year period, usually set as the year's final match.

The competition dates back to 1921. Tokyo Soccer Club, now playing in the amateur ranks, won the inaugural competition. The Emperor's hardware is strikingly similar to the FA Cup.

At present Japan has three professional leagues: J.s 1-3. All play games nationwide. Lower tiers are considered amateur, falling under the JFL and it's regional subdivision's jurisdiction. Every level participates in the Emperor's Cup. With the strong Japanese sense of tradition, the tournament's distinction as the country's original football competition carries significant respect. In addition, the winner earns a place in the Asian Champions League.

Yokohama and Osaka represent the Kanto and Kansai regions respectively. Throughout Japan's long history, these two regions haven’t like each other very much. Samurais, Shoguns, and Emperors from each have made war on the other. On New Year's Day at the Saitama Stadium, it's football's turn.

It’s tradition for Japanese people to visit a shrine or temple on the first day of the year. In many ways, the Saitama Stadium is a shrine for Japanese football legend. Constructed for the 2002 World Cup, the ground hosted four matches, including games featuring England, Brazil, and, of course, Japan. Saitama is home for Urawa Red Diamonds. It's also in the Kanto region, technically making it a home match for Yokohama.

But, it’s already been a good season for Cerezo Osaka. They’ve successfully adapted to life back in J1 after a few turbulent years in J2, reestablishing their place in the table's top half by finishing third. They’ve already qualified for the Champions League next season and do not require the trophy. Which is not to say they don't want it. 

Should they win, however, Yokohama will watch the Champions League spot go to Kashiwa Reysol, the league's fourth-place team. Cerezo will enter with a certain swagger as well. The Cherry Blossoms won the J.League Cup earlier this season, defeating Kawasaki Frontale 2-0.

Cerezo's star player is undoubtedly Kenyu Sugimoto. The Osaka-born forward scored 22 goals throughout the year. He has been a transfer target for La Liga side, Getafe. Unfortunately, he is doubtful due to injury.

Matej Jonjic will be the player the rest of the squad looks to in Sugimoto's absence. The Croatian took to Japanese football exceptionally well after transferring from the K-League. Ever-present during the league campaign, he's proven to be a very important piece in the team’s back line. Manager Yoon Jong-Hwan likes expansive football, encouraging his outfield players to go forward. Freedom given, Jonjic chipped in with six goals during the league campaign. His presence at both ends of the pitch may prove pivotal.

That being said, history is not on Cerezo's side when it comes to Emperor's Cup finals. In three previous trips, they've come away empty-handed.

On the opposite side, Yokohama has tasted success in the competition twice, most recently winning the 2013 tournament. Still, Marinos have much more to win, and by extension, to lose. Finishing fifth in the J.League means they will miss out on continental football unless they win the Emperor's Cup. There is no Asia-opa League.

Despite finishing outside the top three, the team from the other side of Tokyo Bay enjoyed a good season under Erick Mombaerts. The Frenchman will line up with his side for the last time, though. He has announced his intention to return to France after the season.

For much of the year, Yokohama FM displayed a classy outfit. Key players Hugo Vieira, Quenten Martinus, and Manabu Saito surged the side forward. The Portuguese forward provided the winning goal to send them into the final when the Tricolore were locked in a stalemate with Kashiwa Reysol at the end of 90 minutes. Deep into extra time, the 118th minute to be precise, Vieira let loose a stunning shot to send the Nissan stadium into rapture. 

Yokohama and Osaka last met only weeks ago, for one of the season's last games. Cerezo brushed aside Yokohama comprehensively in a 4-1 rout at the Nissan. Yokohama started the game well, leading at halftime on a goal from Babunski. Then they fell victim to a torrid 23 minutes in which Osaka scored goals in quick succession to win the game.

Overall, the record between the two rivals is much closer. Cerezo Osaka has won seven games, Yokohama six. There have been eight draws between them, as well. There won't be a draw in this one, however.

Cerezo will want to complete a historic double by winning the trophy. Erick Mombaerts will want to leave his club with his head held high. he can manage that by sending Yokohama to Asia. The game kicks off at 0540 UK time for you insomniacs. Enjoy.

Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 

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