TOYOTA, Aichi Pref. – Nagoya Grampus passed another test of their mettle en route to their first J. League championship as Dragan Stojkovic’s men defeated Cerezo Osaka 1-0 thanks to Josh Kennedy’s J1-leading 16th goal on Saturday.
Kennedy hit a first-half penalty as Nagoya overcame the absence of Japan internationals Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Mu Kanazaki to beat Cerezo, opening up an 11-point lead over idle Kashima Antlers with six games left in the season.
Antlers, who Grampus will face next weekend at Kashima, play Albirex at Niigata on Sunday.
Gamba Osaka, behind Kashima on goal difference, were stunned 4-2 at home to relegation-threatened Vissel Kobe as Akira Nishino’s side coughed up three second-half goals, taking a huge step back in the title race.
“It was a very important win today,” Kennedy said. “If we had lost today and Kashima and Gamba won, then obviously the pressure would have been on. But we still have that gap, and it’s important to keep on winning.”
Grampus have 60 points on the year, and have won four of their last five. Fourth-place Cerezo’s title hopes all but evaporated after the loss, which set them 15 points behind Nagoya.
“Definitely an important result for us,” Stojkovic said. “We did exactly what we wanted to do before the game, which was to win and add another three points in our account.”
“Don’t forget that we played the team who has the second-best defense in the league at this moment,” the manager said, referring to the 26 goals Cerezo have conceded this season.
“Cerezo is a team who has been a surprise team in J1 this year. They came from J2 to J1 and they have really showed a good performance.”
Both Tulio and Kanazaki are out with torn hamstrings. Kanazaki will be sidelined for another two weeks, but Stojkovic is praying Tulio can recover in time for the marquee showdown against Oswaldo Oliveira’s three-time defending champions.
Before a crowd of 24,061 at Toyota Stadium, Mitsuru Chiyotanda and Yoshizumi Ogawa filled in admirably for Tulio and Kanazaki, respectively, as Grampus set the tone right from kickoff.
Chiyotanda brought out a one-handed save from Kensuke Matsui on the quarter-hour, when Ogawa curled in a left-wing free kick from the center of the penalty area.
Nagoya went on to break through in the 28th minute through Kennedy, who won the penalty he converted as the Australia forward took a charge from Cerezo defender Taikai Uemoto inside the box.
In other games, 15th-place FC Tokyo scored a huge win to their J1 survival at Shimizu, beating S-Pulse 2-1 behind goals from Sota Hirayama and Masashi Oguro.
Urawa Reds dropped their second straight as Volker Finke’s side lost 1-0 at home to Montedio Yamagata, while Kawasaki Frontale failed to keep up with Grampus, drawing 1-1 with Jubilo Iwata.
Vegalta Sendai edged Kyoto Sanga 1-0 at home.