NIIGATA – Gotoku Sakai opened his J. League account with a contender for goal of the season Saturday as Albirex Niigata boosted their survival hopes with a 4-2 defeat of Yokohama F Marinos at Big Swan.
Cho Young Cheol opened the scoring after 20 minutes, and two goals in the space of a minute from Sakai and Brazilian striker Michael put Niigata in control. Bruno Lopes secured victory to put Niigata five points clear of third-from-bottom Ventforet Kofu, beaten 1-0 at home by Kawasaki Frontale, with six games left.
“We tried to make the most of home advantage and our fans getting behind us and were able to play the aggressive style that we like to play,” said Niigata manager Hisashi Kurosaki.
“We have to keep our heads up and not look down. We will be treating all of our remaining games as though they are cup finals.”
Marinos’ second league defeat in a row put a fresh dent in their title hopes, leaving them three points behind leaders Gamba Osaka, who play Urawa Reds at home on Sunday.
Looking to build on a 3-1 win over Shimizu S-Pulse in the Nabisco Cup in midweek, Niigata took advantage of slack marking to go in front as Cho arrived at the back post to head in Yusuke Murakami’s cross.
Cho nearly double his tally and Niigata’s advantage on 31 minutes but fired just wide after being released by Sakai. A long-range effort from Hiroyuki Taniguchi was all Yokohama could manage in a poor first half.
Niigata thought it had doubled the lead 10 minutes into the second half when Michael turned in from close range, but the linesman flagged for offside.
But it was not long before Niigata did go in front with a sensational effort from Sakai on his 70th J. League appearance.
The Japan Under-22 found Michael with a throw in and after taking the return pass, surged forward to uncork an unstoppable strike in off the underside of the crossbar.
“That shot felt great,” said Sakai. “It was so exciting to score but it was a tough game and I had to switch straight back on so it was a fleeting moment of happiness.”
Yokohama defender Yuzo Kurihara was at fault for Vegalta Sendai’s third goal in last week’s 3-1 home defeat, and the highlights of this match will not make pretty viewing for the Japan international, whose slip allowed Michael to promptly make it 2-0.
Bruno Lopes dispossessed Kurihara after he failed to deal with a routine pass from Yuji Nakazawa and Michael pounced on the loose ball to slot home.
Kurihara partially atoned for that mistake when he pulled one back by heading in Yuji Ono’s cross, but Niigata quickly restored its three-goal cushion through Bruno Lopes’ diving header 18 minutes from time. Substitute Takashi Amano grabbed a consolation for Yokohama in the third minute of injury time.
“This was a crucial game for us but we just have to sort out our defense and try and turn things around for the next game,” said Yokohama manager Kazushi Kimura.
“Heads are bound to go down when you concede goals the way we did today.”
In other games, second-from-bottom Montedio Yamagata could only manage a point in a 1-1 draw at home to Jubilo Iwata, Ryoichi Maeda leveling for the visitors to cancel out Shun Ito’s early opener.
Kofu remains third-from-bottom after Yu Kobayashi’s 11th goal of the season for Kawasaki separated the two sides at Yamanashi Chuo Bank Stadium.
Last-place Avispa Fukuoka pulled off another surprise win to give themselves a fresh flicker of hope in the fight for survival, beating Omiya Ardija 2-0 away courtesy of goals from Takuya Matsuura and Hisashi Jogo.
Koji Nakajima’s 91st-minute header gave Sanfrecce Hiroshima a 1-0 win at home to Vissel Kobe.