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Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004

J. LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP

Hot Reds aim to put away ailing Marinos


By GUS FIELDING

The last ever J. League Championship final kicks off at International Stadium Yokohama on Sunday and the end-of-season showdown between two of the league's big guns could not have come at a better time for Urawa Reds.

News photo
Yuichiro Nagai and the Urawa Reds will take on the Yokohama F. Marinos in the first leg of the J.League Championship on Sunday in Yokohama.

Urawa visits first-stage winner and defending champion Yokohama F. Marinos in the first leg on a high after claiming the second-stage title and winning its last two games of the regular season, to finish with a stage record 37 points and 40 goals scored from 15 matches.

In contrast, Yokohama's form has slipped and it wrapped up its campaign with a 0-0 draw away to Tokyo Verdy last Sunday, after being beaten 2-1 at home by Albirex Niigata earlier the same week.

Yokohama has been hit with a rash of injuries to key players but manager Takeshi Okada has done his homework and it is anyone's guess who will come out on top in the last championship to be contested under the two-stage system.

The championship, the first to be played in three years after Jubilo Iwata won both stages in 2002 and Yokohama repeated the feat last year, should provide an exciting end to the league season with the matches between two of the best supported teams guaranteed to draw full houses.

Very little has separated Yokohama and Urawa in league action this year. They played out to a 1-1 draw on the opening day of the season, a sublime Emerson finish canceling out Ahn Jung Hwan's 29th-minute opener for Yokohama.

The second-stage clash finished in a 0-0 draw, while a double from Brazilian J. League top scorer Emerson saw Urawa come from behind to win 3-2 in the Nabisco Cup quarterfinals in September.

Okada will be without the services of Japan international striker Tatsuhiko Okubo (lower back), South Korean forward Ahn (ankle) and compatriot Yoo Sang Chul (thigh), and midfielder Akihiro Endo (calf).

But even with the absence of his star strikers, the former Japan coach, who will likely start with Daisuke Sakata and Norihisa Shimizu up front, believes the championship will bring out the best in his players.



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