KASHIWA, Chiba Pref. — Shimizu S-Pulse manager Kenta Hasegawa conceded defeat in the J. League title race after Sunday’s 5-0 loss to Kashiwa Reysol, and admits his previously league-leading side will struggle to secure a berth in the Asian Champions League if it continues its wretched form.
S-Pulse put together a 12-game unbeaten run to claim top spot at the beginning of last month, but Sunday’s astonishing collapse marked the club’s third straight defeat and left it trailing leaders Kawasaki Frontale by eight points with three games left.
Wins for top-three Frontale, Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka also leaves S-Pulse four points behind third-place Gamba and a slot in next year’s ACL, and Hasegawa acknowledged his team will have to get its act together if it wants to capitalize on the strides it has made this season.
“We will keep going as long as there is a chance, but losing today has made winning the title very difficult,” he said. “Next we play Gamba at home, and we have to win that one if we want to qualify for the ACL.
“But we have to get out of this slump, change our mind-set and forget about tonight’s result if we are to do that. There’s still a chance, and I want to see the players giving their all to make it happen.”
Striker Frode Johnsen also threw in the title towel after the game, and believes the pressures of leading the league may have contributed to the team’s demise.
“Now it’s impossible, but we have three important games to stay in the top four and maybe go for third place,” the Norwegian said. “We have a very important game next, so it’s not over yet.
“I think against Oita (the first of those three defeats) everybody was a little bit nervous. It was hard pressure being No. 1, and maybe this is the reason. But football is complicated so it’s very difficult to have one answer.”
Frontale clung on to first place on Sunday despite conceding an 89th-minute equalizer against JEF United Chiba, as striker Renatinho completed his hat trick in injury time to salvage a 3-2 win.
Antlers remain one point behind after a 2-0 victory over Montedio Yamagata, while Gamba are a further three off the pace after trouncing Kyoto Sanga 4-1.
But Reysol’s 5-0 win could yet prove to be the most significant result of the weekend, giving the Chiba side a glimmer of hope of escaping relegation after fellow strugglers Omiya Ardija conceded a late goal to lose 1-0 to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Reysol cut the gap on fourth-from-bottom Ardija to six points with three games to go, and defeats for Yamagata and Vissel Kobe prevented both teams from securing their top-flight status for at least another round.
Kashiwa’s win also made inroads into reducing the club’s hefty goal-difference arrears, and left manager Nelsinho optimistic with a showdown with Ardija still to come on Nov. 28.
“We knew what was at stake, and we knew we had to win,” the Brazilian said. “We fought for it right from the start, and all the players helped each other out and kept it tight all over the pitch.
“It was an excellent performance, and I think it took S-Pulse by surprise as well.”
JEF’s slim hopes of survival were ended by defeat at Frontale, however, as the Chiba club joined Oita Trinita in relegation to J2.
They will be replaced by Cerezo Osaka and Vegalta Sendai, who both clinched promotion on Sunday, and one of either Shonan Bellmare or Ventforet Kofu, who remain locked in a tight battle for third place and face each other in the next round of matches.