The FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP has a history of thrilling matches, and the 2021 edition was as good as it gets. A dominant start from Kawasaki Frontale was answered by a dizzying Gamba Osaka comeback. Then, with the match looking destined for penalty kicks, Yu Kobayashi scored with the final kick of the game to deliver Kawasaki Frontale the 3-2 win and FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP trophy.
Kawasaki Frontale opened the match as favorites, coming off of MEIJI YASUDA J1 LEAGUE and Emperor’s Cup titles in 2020. Their quality was on full display early on as Kaoru Mitoma, in particular, shined with a pair of goals, but last season’s runners up Gamba Osaka came into the match hoping to prove they could play with the champions, and they did. They may have come up short at the Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday, but there is no doubt that their point was made - Kawasaki Frontale, as good as they are, have a real challenger on their hands in Gamba.
The action started quickly, with Leandro Damião trying an overhead kick within three minutes. The brilliant attempt left Kawasaki Frontale with a rebound that should have been the opening goal, but Masaaki Higashiguchi made a terrific save to keep the match scoreless.
Kawasaki Frontale did not slow down. Miki Yamane’s dazzling footwork saw him nutmeg a defender before crossing for a big chance that was hit into the side netting. Moments later, new signing João Schmidt sent a corner kick on goal, which required another great save from Higashiguchi. Shogo Taniguchi should have scored the rebound, but his shot went flying over the bar.
All of this came in the first dozen minutes, and while Patric tried to give Gamba Osaka some life with his 14th minute overhead kick attempt, it was easily saved and Kawasaki Frontale were quickly on the front foot with Akihiro Ienaga just barely missing with a blistering shot on the other end.
Finally, in the 29th minute, Kawasaki Frontale got the lead they deserved. Mitoma ended up on the end of a gorgeous move and, with a clear line at goal, buried a shot to best the previously impenetrable Higashiguchi for the game’s opening tally.
Mitoma struck again four minutes later as Kawasaki Frontale regained the ball in the attacking third and Miki Yamane quickly hit a cross towards goal. The scrambling Gamba Osaka defense was asking for offside as Mitoma cooly tapped it home to put the ball into the net and VAR affirmed the lineman’s onside decision to uphold the goal.
The second half started just as the first half ended, with a sizzling cross from Kawasaki Frontale finding its target as Damião got free in front and beat Higashiguchi with his effort, but just barely put it over the bar.
Gamba began to find their footing after Damião’s miss, though. It started with a more confident defense, then the midfield began to possess the ball for long stretches, then finally they started to get the ball into the box.
Gamba Osaka had come alive and it paid off in the 60th minute. With Patric’s hulking presence keeping Kawasaki Frontale from clearing, the ball found Yuki Yamamoto at 15 yards. His header sent the ball towards goal, where Shinya Yajima intervened. A speedy touch to bring the ball down, then shot with his body twisting all in one motion was gorgeous. It was also effective, as his shot found the back of the net and the game was back on.
With a goal on the board, Gamba Osaka saw a chance to win the Super Cup right in front of them and continued to pressure Kawasaki Frontale. They pushed the ball forward time and time again, then in the 66th minute drew a penalty when an attempted flick in the box caught the arm of Yamane. The referee quickly and rightfully pointed to the spot, and Patric buried the penalty kick into the top corner to bring the match level at 2-2.
Both teams pushed desperately for a winner, with Gamba just barely flashing a header over goal minutes after nearly being given another penalty. Kawasaki Frontale found their way back into the match late and nearly pulled off a 90th minute winner, but Higashiguchi came to the rescue yet again. This time he scrambled to save a point blank header, his best save in a match full of excellent saves from the Gamba goalkeeper.
Even Higashiguchi’s magic could not deny Kawasaki Frontale in the end, though.
With the clock passing 95:00 and the match into the final minute of stoppage time, it looked destined for penalty kicks. But Kawasaki Frontale were able to find some space between the Gamba lines and a firm pass from the back found Daiya Tono between the Gamba midfield and defense. The midfielder then turned and spotted Kobayashi on his right with a clear path to goal. A good pass from Tono hit Kobayashi at a full sprint, but the job was not yet done. Beating Higashiguchi was going to take a calm and perfectly placed finish, which is exactly what Kobayashi delivered to make Kawasaki Frontale FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP champions.
Kawasaki Frontale were the best team in the country last year and have now begun this season with a trophy. But Gamba Osaka’s ferocious comeback featured the dazzling skill and tough mindset needed to challenge a top team like Kawasaki Frontale. They have it, and it’s clear that the 2021 race to the top of the MEIJI YASUDA J1 LEAGUE is going to be a battle for the ages.