Kawasaki Frontale have proven themselves to be the team to beat for the upcoming 2021 J.League 1 season after they claimed the 2021 Japanese Super Cup title on Saturday, edging out Gamba Osaka 3-2 at the Saitama Stadium 2002 in an exciting and dramatic encounter. Kaoru Mitoma picked off from where he had left off in 2020 and started his 2021 season with a bang, scoring a brace to ensure Kawasaki would have a a healthy lead coming into half-time. Gamba did not go down without a fight though and they soon came back from two goals down to draw the tie 2-2. With extra time looming, Kansai hearts were broken at the last minutes of the match after veteran Yu Kobayashi nets Kawasaki's winner deep into injury time.
Having lost Kengo Nakamura to retirement and Hidemasa Morita to Portuguese top flight side Santa Clara, Kawasaki head coach Toru Oniki was still able to field out a strong side in Saitama, with new signing Joao Schmidt, brought in from Nagoya Grampus, filling into the defensive midfield position left behind by Morita. Kawasaki's biggest success in the winter transfer market, though, was their ability to retain Mitoma at the club. After an explosive 2020 season that shot him into the spotlight, a number of bigger teams would surely relish the prospect of having the young winger in their lineup, however Kawasaki have done well to shield their prized talent from prying eyes for now.
And true to form, it was Mitoma who broke the duck for Kawasaki in the 29th minute. With veteran goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi already denying a high octane Kawasaki their opening goal a number of times, he was unable to save a decisive strike from Mitoma, who had cut his way through the left wing after receiving a pass from Ao Tanaka.
Mitoma's second goal was scored only three minutes after his first, giving Kawasaki a commanding lead after just 33 minutes. Having deflected in a Miki Yamane volley into Higashiguchi's net from point blank range, Mitoma's goal went through a review by the video assistant referee (VAR) for offsides, before being upheld. The VAR will be in use for the 2021 J1 season, having its 2020 debut scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going into the break 2-0 down, Gamba roared into life in the second stanza and Shinya Yajima gave the Kansai side some measure of hope in the 60th minute, taking advantage of some slack Kawasaki clearance to smash home a left-footed bullet past Jung Sung-ryong. Patric then drew the scoreline level in the 67th minute, smashing home a penalty past Jung after Yamane had handled the ball inside the Kawasaki penalty box.
However, as Gamba were set to force extra time much to Kawasaki's frustration, Kobayashi emerged as the 2020 J1 champions' knight in shining armor in the sixth minute of injury time, receiving a through pass from Daiya Tono before catching Higashiguchi off-guard and slotting home the winning goal from close-range.
With Saitama being one of the prefectures placed underneath a COVID-19 state of emergency by the Japanese government, an audience cap of 5,000 was being placed for this year's Japanese Super Cup, with 4,208 people turning out at the Saitama Stadium 2002 for the match. Food stalls from all of the J.League's stadiums as well as a gathering of the league's mascots, hallmark fixtures in each Super Cup, were absent from Saturday's occasion, however an online poll for 2021's J.League Mascot of the Year was held by the league's social media channels, with the poll being won by V-Varen Nagasaki's Vivi-kun.
The 2021 Japanese Super Cup also saw a historical milestone after Kawasaki's Koki Tsukagawa was subbed off early in injury time due to a concussion, the first time a Japanese football match utilizes the concussion substitution. The new system, implemented for the 2021 season, saw teams being awarded one extra substitution if one of their players must leave the field for a possible head injury.
Kawasaki will start their J1 title defense at home with Yokohama F. Marinos visiting the Todoroki Athletics Stadium on February 26th. Gamba, on the other hand, will start their season away at Vissel Kobe for a Hanshin Derby on February 27th.