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Reds lose ground in title race after Aoyama saves point for Ventforet

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Naoaki Aoyama scored in the 96th minute to rescue a precious point for Ventforet Kofu and dent Urawa Reds’ J. League title hopes with a 1-1 draw on Saturday.

Second-place Urawa went into the game at Saitama Stadium trailing league-leaders Yokohama F. Marinos by two points, and Yuki Abe looked to have set the home side on its way to another win when he converted a penalty in the 51st minute.

But Aoyama spoiled the party by crashing home the equalizer in the sixth minute of injury time, giving fourth-from-bottom Ventforet a six-point cushion above the relegation places with eight games of the season left to play.

“We were annoyed to have conceded the goal, but the important thing was that we didn’t concede a second,” said Aoyama, whose only other goal this season was a last-minute equalizer against Marinos in April. “It was a good ball that came my way at the right time for my goal, and it wasn’t so difficult to finish it off.

“Up until now, a bad feeling has gone through the team whenever we went behind in a game. But tonight we stayed patient and it paid off in the end.”

Marinos extended their lead at the top to four points with a 1-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima moved ahead of Reds on goal difference in second with a 2-0 victory over Albirex Niigata.

“This is difficult to take,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “Kofu defend very well and they have beaten some of the top teams in recent weeks. I knew this was going to be a difficult game, and I knew they would be difficult to break down.

“We have eight games left, and losing these two points hurts our chances. But we will keep going and continue to give everything until the end.”

Brazilian striker Patric missed a great chance to put Ventforet ahead at the end of a first half dominated by Urawa, firing against goalkeeper Norihiro Yamagishi before missing from an acute angle with the rebound.

When Urawa did break the deadlock six minutes into the second half, it came in curious circumstances. Tomoaki Makino blasted a free kick into the defensive wall, and referee Nobutsugu Murakami pointed to the spot and booked Patric for deliberately blocking the shot with his hand.

Yamagishi denied Patric again from a header at the back post in the 69th minute, and the goalkeeper appeared to have completed a fine evening’s work by shutting the striker out once more with three minutes left on the clock.

But Aoyama would have the final say as he notched the equalizer in injury time, following up to ram the ball home after substitute Kazuki Hiramoto had hit the post.

“At 1-0 down we knew we couldn’t allow them to score any more, and we knew that for as long as the score stayed like that we would have chances to get a goal,” said Ventforet manager Hiroshi Jofuku. “Because we stuck to the task, the football gods rewarded us right at the end, and the ball fell Aoyama’s way.

“Over the summer we lost eight games in a row, and when you have the memory of that bitter experience, you don’t pay too much attention to the other team.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, fourth-place Kashima Antlers moved three points behind Sanfrecce and Reds with a 3-2 win over Jubilo Iwata, placing second-from-bottom Jubilo’s survival chances in real jeopardy 10 points adrift of safety.

FC Tokyo moved up to fifth with a 2-0 win over Nagoya Grampus, Vegalta Sendai scored two second-half goals to beat Omiya Ardija 2-0, and Takashi Kanai scored to give Sagan Tosu a 1-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale.

At the other end of the table, Kosuke Taketomi scored twice as Shonan Bellmare beat rock-bottom Oita Trinita 2-1.

Asian Champions League semifinalists Kashiwa Reysol are away to Cerezo Osaka on Sunday.