On Wednesday, Yokohama F.Marinos lost 3-1 to Kawasaki Frontale. It was the kind of entertainment you would expect between two of the best teams in Asia but Ange Postecoglou lost more than just a game.
The least important of what was at stake was that it was the latest edition of the Kanagawa Derby, the big game between these two big teams in the prefecture located just south of Tokyo.
For Ange Postecoglou however, the loss confirms that a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League, one that had grown increasingly unlikely in recent weeks, is now officially out of reach. The Marinos, champions last season but inconsistent this, are now five points behind Nagoya Grampus in third and with just one game remaining, it is over. There will be no continental engagements next year.
That the stakes were high were reflected in the decision by the former Socceroos boss, who has been rotating his squad with gusto as the Marinos faced a hectic schedule at home, went with a strong first eleven. Yokohama are still defending champions and desperate not to lose against their soon-to-be successors who have such a lead that even Donald Trump would have to concede.
It also leaves Kawasaki, who has been anything but inconsistent at the top of the table all year, 17 points clear of Gamba Osaka in second with just six games remaining. With 28 games played, Frontale have dropped just 12 points. It has been a dominant performance from start to finish and the title should be confirmed within days.
Such class and such form meant that it was always going to be difficult for Yokohama, who had lost three of the previous four. The task became tougher with just four minutes remaining of the first half as goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka was sent off for handling outside the area.
Kawasaki opened the deadlock after 53 minutes after some uncertain defending gave Kaoru Mitoma the chance to score from close range. Yet Shinnosuke Hatanaka equalised just six minutes later, heading home a corner.
Both teams continued to push for the winner but, with Kawasaki’s numerical advantage, it was not a surprise when the hosts got it, though they had to wait until the last minute.
Once again, Yokohama failed to clear a ball in the area and Jesiel bundled the ball home and there was still time for Yu Kobayashi, who had seen a 93rd-minute penalty saved, to score a third before the final whistle.
“I think the players did everything,” Postecoglou said. “Until the sending off, we were playing the game we wanted to play but then it became difficult.
“We wanted to stick to the football we play and wanted to keep attacking, the most important thing is to play our game regardless of the situation. We were still able to create opportunities. The players gave their all until the very end”
The 2015 Asian Cup-winning coach paid tribute to Yokohama’s successor as champions. “It was a game of high quality. Kawasaki have done wonderfully this season.”
There is one silver lining to missing out on Asia 2021, it means that Yokohama can head to Asia 2020 knowing that their final J.League game, an even more local derby against Yokohama FC, on December 19, will be for bragging rights only.
All focus for this tired team can now go on winning the Asian Champions League that has resumed in Qatar. With two wins from the opening two games earlier this year, missing out on the knockout stage would be a surprise and a failure but there could be so much more.
Victory over Shanghai SIPG and Aaron Mooy next week should do the trick. Becoming continental champions would end a crazy season on the biggest high.