The final of the 2008 Yamazaki Nabisco Cup will be played out between Oita Trinita and Shimizu S-Pulse at the National Stadium in Tokyo this Saturday, but as an Englishman with a preference for the Manchester United style of attacking football, I really ought to have little fondness for the former. Trinita have certainly shown their title credentials this season, sitting as they do just two points off the pace in the league, but the main reason for their success has been a defence that is comfortably the meanest in the division.
While Oita have conceded just 23 goals in their 30 league games so far, they have scored just 31 times at the other end – an attacking record even more dismal than that of already-relegated Consadole Sapporo. 21 of their 51 points have, inevitably, been gained through seven 1-0 victories. To put these figures into context, Kawasaki Frontale – level on points with Trinita in third place – have scored 54 goals and conceded 40, meaning that their games bring almost twice as many goals as do Oita’s. The Yokohama F Marinos ‘vintage’ of 2004 scored the fewest goals of any J League champions to date, but even their tally of 47 goals from 30 games is roughly 50% better than the side from Kyushu.
Finally, as a Gamba Osaka supporter, I should also have a number of personal grudges against Trinita. Gamba have lost in all six of their visits to Oita since the latter’s promotion in 2003, while of the four matches I have witnessed in the flesh at Banpaku, the away side have been victorious on three occasions.
However, the fact that I cannot bring myself to dislike Oita Trinita is simply because you just have to respect the achievements of Peracles Chamusca. In the summer of 2005, when I began my first job covering the J League, it seemed as if I would write every week about how another Oita defeat had left them in utter freefall, and after a winless run that ultimately stretched to 13 games across four whole months, manager Hwangbo Kwan was relieved of his duties with Trinita in 17th place. Chamusca was the man flown in to put out this most towering of infernos, but the Brazilian’s effect on the team was stunningly instantaneous. Five wins and a draw were recorded in his first six games as manager, with the side suddenly transformed into one capable of hammering Shimizu 5-0 and winning away at title favourites Gamba. Trinita only had 19 points from the 22 games before his arrival, but their haul of 24 from the remaining 12 matches that year was championship quality, and lifted the team to a final position of 11th. Japan was truly witnessing ‘Chamusca Magic’ at work.
This finish was, at the time, the highest in Trinita’s history, but despite suffering the departure of key striker Magno Alves that winter, Chamusca continued to make improvements in 2006 and ultimately led his side to eighth place in the league. A drop back down to 14th last year saw him face criticism for the first time since his arrival in Japan, but Chamusca typically retained both his confidence and his smile, seizing on this opportunity to work his magic once again. The team have since been given a more defensive focus after shipping 60 goals in the league alone last season, but this number has now been halved without, astonishingly, any significant changes in either formation or defensive personnel (retaining a back three of Taikai Uemoto, Masato Morishige, and Yuki Fukaya; protected by the Brazilian duo of Roberto and Edmilson in midfield). Chamusca’s perseverance and tactical nous have brought Trinita close to glory on two fronts, both in the cup and in the league.
The only issue now is whether or not the side can finish the job. The final straight is often especially tricky for sides lacking experience in cup finals or tense title races, and after going 17 games unbeaten until late September, Oita have won just once and lost three in four games since. Their opponents in the Nabisco Cup final, Shimizu S-Pulse, have by contrast hit real form since a 5-1 win away to FC Tokyo on 4 October, recording victories over title contenders Kawasaki and Gamba in their last two outings. S-Pulse supporters are keen to emphasise the richness of their club’s history in comparison to Trinita, but while it is true that Shimizu did win this competition in 1996 and the Emperor’s Cup in 2001, this Saturday will represent their first visit to the National Stadium in six years since the 2002 Xerox Super Cup. The significance and the future of the Nabisco Cup may remain items for debate, but a final featuring two teams for which such glories are so rare will be something to look forward to, both for their supporters and for neutral fans alike.