SAITAMA – Yokohama F. Marinos kept up their impressive start to the J. League season with a well-deserved 2-0 away win over Urawa Reds on Tuesday.
Marinos went into the match at Saitama Stadium unbeaten after starting the campaign with a win and two draws, and Kazuma Watanabe set them on their way to another three points when he headed home a Shunsuke Nakamura free kick in the 70th minute.
Urawa’s frantic search for an equalizer left the back door open for substitute Masashi Oguro to notch a second in injury time, putting a satisfied smile on the face of manager Kazushi Kimura after setting the ambitious target of winning the title at the start of the season.
“To come away from a stadium like this with a win is a real confidence boost for us,” he said. “In the first half they were on top of us, but that was part of the plan and we had a block of defense to deal with it. In the second half we scored from a set piece and later hit them with a sucker punch. We played some good stuff today.”
Reds found Marinos’ counterattacking style too stubborn to break down despite the support of a 47, 056-strong home crowd, and Nakamura made no apologies for his team’s defensive outlook.
“Defensively it’s going well,” he said. “Last year there weren’t so many players in the team that could do that kind of job, so we’re playing like this with a defensive block until we can find our rhythm. Everyone wants to play like Barcelona, but we have to think about what works.”
The former Celtic playmaker again excelled in a deep midfield role, leading Kimura to suggest his newly appointed captain has added another string to his bow.
“Recently he’s become a defensive player,” he joked. “What he does is for the team, and he’s the captain and has given a lot of help to the other players. It’s good that the players are able to do a variety of things, and we are moving in the right direction.”
Shingo Hyodo fired the first chance high and wide as Marinos made a bright start to the match, but Urawa gradually began to assume control and Marcio Richardes, Tatsuya Tanaka and Tomoya Ugajin all went close before the interval.
A slaloming Genki Haraguchi run minutes after the restart suggested Reds would continue in the same vein, but Marinos grew in menace as Hiroyuki Taniguchi hit the post on the hour mark before Shohei Ogura lashed a shot just wide of the target a minute later.
With the visitors beginning to enjoy more possession, Watanabe made it count. Nakamura swung in a perfect free kick, and the striker found space to connect with a header that went in off the post.
Haraguchi went agonizingly close to salvaging an equalizer with the match moving into injury time, but Oguro took advantage as he beat goalkeeper Norihiro Yamagishi on the counter to wrap up the win.
“We played a fantastic first half and it’s unbelievable that we lost this game,” said Urawa manager Zeljko Petrovic. “A set piece is part of the game and you have to defend it better, but after that we lost a bit of confidence.
“I changed a couple of players to push more and we were unlucky two or three times. I don’t know what happened because we played an almost-perfect first half. It’s very difficult if you play against counterattacking teams.”
Elsewhere, Vegalta Sendai went top of the table after a third straight win, 1-0 over pointless Avispa Fukuoka, while Kashiwa Reysol lost their 100 percent record after going down 2-1 to Montedio Yamagata through an 83rd-minute Yu Hasegawa goal.
There was also late drama as Yu Kobayashi hit a 90th-minute winner to lead Kawasaki Frontale past Jubilo Iwata 1-0, while Albirex Niigata maintained their unbeaten record with a 1-0 win over Vissel Kobe.
In the day’s other games, Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0, and Ventforet Kofu and Omiya Ardija drew 1-1.
Antlers triumph in ACL
Kashima Antlers became the first J. League club to qualify for the Asian Champions League’s round of 16 on Tuesday after beating Shanghai Shenhua 2-0 at home, and Suwon Bluewings defeated Sydney FC 3-1 also at home.
Japanese international Shinzo Koroki struck on either side of halftime to keep Oswaldo Oliveira’s side level with Group H leaders Suwon on nine points with one game left in the first round.
Antlers and Bluewings are four points ahead of third-place Sydney, who cannot overtake Kashima even if they beat the seven-time J. League champion in the May 10 group finale.
Kashima had eliminated last-place Shanghai earlier in the day, dealing the winless Chinese side its third loss of the tournament.
The last 16 will be held on May 24 and 25, with the eight group winners receiving home advantage in the one-off. Kashima trails Suwon by one on goal difference.
“I haven’t been playing well as of late so I’m glad I somewhat made up for it today,” said Koroki, who drew a second-half yellow card that will ban him for the Sydney game.
“I won’t be able to play next time, but I’m sure the boys will keep doing the job for us.”
In the knockout phase, Antlers will face one of the top two teams from Group F, including J. League champion Nagoya Grampus, who are currently in first on goal difference ahead of FC Seoul.
Nagoya, which can also qualify with a win over Hangzhou Greentown on Wednesday at Mizuho Athletics Stadium, lost to Kashima three times last year, twice in the J. League and once in the Emperor’s Cup quarterfinals.