Cerezo were minutes away from winning the final, but Sanfrecce showcased some spectacular fight to win the tournament for the first time in club history.
The first half didn’t provide many scoring opportunities, with the Sakura notching the best chance on a curler to the far post that Viola goalkeeper Keisuke Osako easily saved.
Just minutes the second half, though, Cerezo would find the elusive breakthrough as a poor Sanfrecce backpass was intercepted by Mutsuki Kato, who clinically rounded the keeper before sliding the ball into the open net.
The Sakura were lifted by the goal and continued to push for an insurance tally but the match unexpectedly changed in the 79th minute when Cerezo defender Matej Jonjić was judged to have struck Nassim Ben Khalifa, with the help of VAR. Jonjić saw red for his act, and Cerezo suddenly had to defend their lead with 10 men.
With the clock ticking and Cerezo holding strong, VAR again came to Sanfrecce’s aid in added time, when a corner kick was headed towards goal and the ball was judged to have hit defender Koji Toriumi’s outstretched arm. Sotiriou buried the spot kick and Sanfrecce were level six minutes into the nine announced minutes of stoppage time.
The drama wasn’t over yet. Five minutes later, with the referee nearly ready to blow for the final whistle, Sanfrecce earned a corner kick once more. Makoto Mitsuta delivered the ball in and Sotirou was yet again there when needed, this time volleying home before ripping his shirt off and running over to the Viola fans with the rest of the team to celebrate their improbable last-gasp winner.
When the final whistle did go, Sanfrecce celebrated on the pitch, while the purple-clad faithful cheered on in the stands. For the first time ever, Sanfrece Hiroshima were the winners of the J.League YBC Levain Cup — and the triumph came less than a week after falling at the final hurdle in the Emperor’s Cup Final.
It was an extra emotional day for the Sanfrecce family for a much more important reason, however, with the triumph coming a day after the passing of former player Masato Kudo, who passed away on Friday following complications from brain surgery.
From the locker room to the stands, the tributes to Kudo were many and heartfelt, on a day that will live long in Hiroshima sporting memory for so many reasons.