Sanfrecce Hiroshima capped a remarkable season with a convincing victory that sealed their first J.League crown and ensured they become just the third founding member of the league to reach the FIFA Club World Cup.

Hiroshima were just one point ahead of Vegalta Sendai going into the penultimate round, but a 4-1 win over Cerezo Osaka in front of 32,724 spectators at Hiroshima Big Arch, combined with Sendai’s 1-0 loss to Albirex Niigata, ensured the title was sealed with a match to spare. takes a look back at a thrilling 2012 J.League season.

The champion
Hiroshima had one hand on the trophy when they clinched the first stage of the two-stage J.League back in 1994, but were ultimately defeated in the championship decider. As a result, this season’s triumph marked the end of the club’s long silverware drought in the top flight. Hiroshima have enjoyed mixed fortunes in recent years, including relegation to the second division in 2002 and 2007, but since bouncing straight back to J1 in 2008, Hiroshima have become more consistent and finished no lower than seventh on the table. Up front, Japan international Hisato Sato has led a reliable attack, while fellow international goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa has been the rock on which the defensive structure has been built.

Sanfrecce and Vegalta were locked in a gripping fight at the top of the table throughout the season. Hiroshima seemed to have gained the upper hand by picking up a draw and then a crucial 2-1 victory in their head-to-head matches, but stumbled toward the end of the season. A 2-1 loss to Kashiwa Reysol in Round 29 was followed by a 1-1 draw with Gamba Osaka. A 2-0 defeat to third-place Urawa Reds in Round 32 meant Hiroshima held a one-point advantage over Sendai with two rounds remaining.

Yet Sanfrecce kept the faith, and their appetite for goals was evident as they produced a sparkling performance to wrap up the title against Cerezo. Midfielder Yojiro Takahagi opened the scoring in the 17th minute, and midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, another product of Hiroshima’s acclaimed youth academy, doubled the lead three minutes later. A penalty just before half-time was calmly converted by Sato to extend the lead to 3-0. Coach Hajime Moriyasu’s half-time message was to keep attacking, and Sanfrecce put the game out of reach by scoring a fourth goal five minutes into the second half. Osaka pulled a goal back in the 61st minute, but the result was never in doubt. Sendai’s defeat by Niigata left Hiroshima four points clear at the top of the table with one game to play, and the title race was over.

The result also meant that Hiroshima joined Urawa (2007) and Gamba (2008) as the only members of the ten J.League founding teams to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup.

The surprise
Gamba were widely tipped to be a strong contender for the title. However, the 2008 Asian champions made a terrible start to the season under new Brazilian coach Jose Carlos Serrao, losing five straight games in the J.League and Asian Champions League. The defence has leaked goals even after the arrival of Japan international Yasuyuki Konno, and veteran midfielder Yasuhito Endo has often been the lone source of inspiration in a struggling side. With one game remaining, Gamba are mired in the relegation zone.

Previous champions Urawa, Nagoya Grampus and Kashiwa have also fallen short of expectations. By contrast, Vegalta have had a season to remember. Based in Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, which was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami disaster in March 2011, they finished a respectable fourth last year and will end this season as runner-up. Under coach Makoto Teguramori, Vegalta stayed in the hunt for the trophy until the penultimate round.

Player to watch
Left-footed forward Hisato Sato has been an integral part of the Hiroshima side since joining from Sendai in 2005. A product of the JEF United Ichihara academy, Sato is known to have an eye for goal and is an unabashed fan of former Italian forward Filippo Inzaghi. He scored a penalty in Sanfrecce’s 4-1 win over Cerezo that wrapped up the 2012 J.League title.

The numbers
— Known for their attacking edge, Hiroshima scored four or more goals in six games this season, including the title-decider against Osaka.

The quote
“When I realised the title was ours, my mind went blank. But I’m just really delighted. We’ve been through some tough patches, but today we got our reward. I’m so happy that I was born and raised in Hiroshima and could play football for Sanfrecce.” Sanfrecce midfielder Koji Morisaki