“I hope you enjoy tonight and party hard!” Those were Kevin Muscat’s words in the aftermath of his side’s 3-1 win over Vissel Kobe on the final day of the season, which saw them finish two points clear of two-time defending champions Kawasaki Frontale. The party may have been delayed, but the party would not be denied. Muscat’s Yokohama F.Marinos are the 2022 J.League champions.
An early goal from Anderson Lopes after a goalmouth scramble was ruled out after a lengthy VAR delay, but Marinos weren’t to be denied for long; Brazilian winger Elber looping home a header shortly after to give Marinos the early lead to so dearly craved.
An equaliser for Kobe just before half time would’ve made for a nervous dressing room, but if there were any jitters coming out for the second half they didn’t show, restoring their lead within 10 minutes of the restart through Takuma Nishimura, before Teruhito Nakagawa sealed the deal 20 minutes from time.
After uncharacteristic losses at home to relegation threatened sides Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata in October, what at one time looked like a comfortable stroll to the title became anything but over the final weeks of the season.
If there were any doubts about their title credentials after those losses, they answered them in true champion style over the final two weeks with two big wins over Urawa Reds and Kobe. Not only is it a title that is well earned, such has been their dominance in Japan this season, but it’s one that will do a lot to change and shape perceptions of Muscat as a manager.
His reputation as a hard man, built over many years in the mean streets of English and Scottish football, at clubs like Milwall and Rangers, is one that he still carries to this day. It’s one he may never be able to shake, but successes like this will go some way to changing that.
This was a title, Marinos’ second in four seasons, built on beautiful football, not blood and guts. And that’s who Kevin Muscat the manager is. He comes from the University of Ange Postecoglou, where the performance is arguably more important than the result. Winning isn’t enough, it’s about winning in style.
That is what will make the victory over Kobe on Saturday so satisfying. With just a draw needed to seal the title it would have been so easy to play within themselves. Instead, they did as they had all season and looked to dominate the game. That’s the Marinos way.
“If there’s an overriding emotion it’s pride,” Muscat said post-game. “Not (just) the result, but the way we played; the way we won was tremendous and made me really proud.” In the coming days, when the celebrations have died down and Muscat has a chance to reflect, he’ll no doubt feel a great sense of personal pride and fulfilment.
Taking over from Postecoglou is surely one of the more difficult tasks in football, such is the hole the Celtic manager leaves when he departs. Having done it once before at Melbourne Victory, Muscat knew exactly what he was walking into, but this one came with unique challenges and a lot of pressure.
Not only did he have tolive up to what came before him, his failed stint in Belgium with Sint-Truiden had ended after barely six months, leaving his reputation as a manager on the line. One failed stint can be excused, a second is awfully hard to recover from.
Stepping in mid-season meant Muscat was afforded little time to prepare. He was thrust straight into the hot seat. And while he helped Marinos to a second-place finish, it wasn’t all rosy. Mixed in with some big wins and even better performances were equally poor ones that had Marinos faithful questioning if Muscat was up to the task.
The off-season saw significant change in the playing personnel; some forced, some not. But it gave Muscat the chance to put his imprint on this team. While he may have inherited a squad from Postecoglou, with the changes this undoubtedly became Muscat’s side.
And the proof was there from the very early days of the season. A second round clash against Kawasaki was the perfect test to see where Marinos stood in the pecking order this season. Could they seriously challenge the team that had won four of the past five titles?
While it took until November for the confirmation, in hindsight that game felt like a changing of the guard. Marinos bossed Frontale like few sides have done in recent years. The 4-2 win set the tone for the season and from that point Marinos have barely looked back.
This has always been their title to win (or lose) and now, officially, win it they have. Time to get the party started.