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Struggling Urawa falls into relegation zone

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

J. League heavyweights Urawa Reds slipped into the relegation places with five matches remaining after a 1-0 derby-day defeat to Omiya Ardija on Saturday.

Urawa, champion in 2006 and Japan’s best-supported club, went into the match at Saitama Stadium having fallen into the bottom three by virtue of Ventforet Kofu’s 4-0 win at Cerezo Osaka earlier in the day, and stayed there after an 84th-minute header from Brazilian striker Rafael gave Ardija the three points.

The result leaves Urawa one point adrift of Kofu, with Albirex Niigata two further ahead and a game in hand against Kawasaki Frontale on Sunday.

Whatever the outcome, Reds manager Zeljko Petrovic announced after the match that he will step down at the end of the season after only one year in charge.

“I have decided that I will not be here next season,” said Petrovic, who was a player with the club when it suffered its one-and-only relegation in 1999. “In my heart I will do everything for Reds, and having said that the club might ask me to leave before then. But I am determined to fight on for the final five games.”

At the other end of the table, third-place Nagoya Grampus beat leaders Gamba Osaka 4-1 to cut the gap at the top to one point and pull even with second-place Kashiwa Reysol, who play Montedio Yamagata on Sunday.

But that was of little interest to Petrovic, who watched striker Ranko Despotovic miss his team’s best chance of the match after being put clean through on goal by Sergio Escudero early in the second half.

“This was a really sad result for us,” said Petrovic, who has led Urawa to the Nabisco Cup final against Kashima Antlers on Oct. 29. “If you compare our strikers to others teams, you can see that ours have not been scoring anywhere near as many goals.

“Players like Genki Haraguchi and Yosuke Kashiwagi have done well for us, but if the forwards can’t score then no team in the world can succeed. I don’t want to criticize the players, but the statistics speak for themselves.”

Haraguchi came off the bench to replace Despotovic in the 66th minute, and his impact was almost immediate as he barreled through the Omiya defense only to stub his shot wide a minute after coming on.

But just as the match looked to be limping toward a goalless conclusion, Rafael beat Mitsuru Nagata to head home a Hayato Hashimoto cross, and Omiya moved six points clear of its local rival to ease its own relegation fears.

“We expected it to be a tough game, and so it proved to be,” said Omiya manager Jun Suzuki. “We’re very happy to take the three points back to Omiya with us. The players were psychologically ready for it, and the fact that it was a derby played its part.

“Reds had more possession and caused us some problems, but we rode it out and managed to play the second half at our own pace. Winning today now gives us a little breathing space before our next game.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Yokohama F. Marinos’ stuttering title challenge took another hit with a 1-1 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, allowing Vegalta Sendai to move within two points of fourth place after a 3-0 win over Avispa Fukuoka.

In the day’s other games, Antlers beat Jubilo Iwata 2-1, and Vissel Kobe and Shimizu S-Pulse drew 1-1.