As the December 31 fireworks fade away from the Japanese capital, possibly the first cup final of 2016 takes place in Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium.
Urawa will be hoping to pick-up their first Emperor’s Cup since 2006 against Gamba Osaka, the holders. Between the two clubs, they have won the prestigious trophy 10 times.
Both clubs enjoyed good J-League seasons, although they fell short of being crowned J-League champions. That honour fell to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who also performed well in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Urawa remain Japan’s most popular club, however, with attendances topping 38,000 at the Saitama Stadium. Gamba were the most successful club in Japan in 2014, winning the treble of J-League, League Cup and Emperor’s Cup.
Urawa edged out Kashiwa Reysol 1-0 in the semi-final, thanks to an extra time header from Tadanari Lee. The goal maintained Lee’s recent impressive record – he scored in the 7-1 win against Machida Zelvia in the round of 16 and in the 3-0 at Vissel Kobe in the quarter-finals.
Lee was overjoyed and told the Japanese media: “This is my greatest feeling…I am in good form and the team is in good form. I wanted this to be my tournament and I will give it my best shot in the final.” Lee, 30, will be familiar to Southampton fans – he had two spells with the club before joining Urawa in 2014.
Gamba, meanwhile, beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-0 in the other semi-final. It was sweet revenge for Gamba after they had lost the J-League play-off 4-3 on aggregate. The club’s coach, Kenta Hasegawa believed that his side was showing signs of fatigue after a long season of almost 60 games.
After 2014 when Gamba won everything, they have been the nearly men in 2015. They lost the League Cup final at the end of October to Kashima Antlers, finished runners-up in the J-League and now they defend their Emperor’s Cup title. They also reached the last four of the AFC Champions League.
By the time European football fans are waking up with thick heads and bleary eyes, the first silverware of 2016 will have already been won and lost.