YOKOHAMA – Nagoya Grampus are back in their familiar place at the top of the J. League table, the defending champions overtaking Kashiwa Reysol with two games left in the season after a gutsy 2-1 victory over Yokohama F Marinos on Saturday.
Nagoya won with just seven minutes remaining through Josh Kennedy’s J1-leading 18th goal of the year as Dragan Stojkovic’s men, on 65 points, moved into first on goal difference ahead of idle Kashiwa who are away to Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday.
Yoshizumi Ogawa, who created Kennedy’s close-range header, opened the scoring early before Shunsuke Nakamura leveled for Marinos with a heads-up free kick midway through the second half.
Gamba Osaka took a step back in the three-way championship race after drawing 2-2 with Albirex in Niigata, sliding down to third with 64 points.
“We knew there’s three games left and to give ourselves a chance we had to win all of them,” Kennedy said. “First step down, two more steps to go.”
“That was our goal before the game, to get three points and it keeps us in the title race. I am happy we did it. . .”
Nagoya plays relegated Montedio Yamagata at home next weekend.
“They’re relegated and will probably play full-risk football,” Kennedy said of Yamagata, which dropped to last place after being hammered 5-0 at home by Avispa Fukuoka on Saturday evening.
“We can’t take them lightly. It doesn’t matter where they are. Avispa’s upset a few teams even being bottom for the whole year, so it’s one of those difficult ones.”
Stojkovic was proud of his team for grinding out a victory to pile the pressure on Reysol, who are chasing their first league title — just as Grampus were last season.
“We played under extremely difficult conditions, both Marinos and Nagoya,” Stojkovic said, referring to the rainstorm that drenched Nissan Stadium.
“We knew why we came to Yokohama — the reason why was to get three points back to Nagoya, and the mission was accomplished. The most important thing was that we showed a strong mentality, a strong character after a very tricky goal for 1-1.
“We didn’t lose our patience, we didn’t lose our hope to reverse the result and win. This is very important for me as a coach I like to see my players never give up.”
The incessant downpour and the howling wind made it a trying affair for both parties who played out a 1-1 draw in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on opening weekend back in March.
Former Japan No. 10 Nakamura had a solid individual game orchestrating Marinos’ attack but as a team, Yokohama took a backseat to the visitors who had won their last three times out.
In the 13th minute, Grampus exploited a gaping hole in the Marinos defense, which was without suspended central defender Yuji Nakazawa, as Ogawa slotted home his third goal of the season after a one-two with Jungo Fujimoto.
Nagoya didn’t have much time to savor Ogawa’s strike, with Marinos going close a minute later when Masashi Oguro hit the post with a right-footed volley from the edge of the box.
Grampus may have been denied an opportunity to double their lead after 16 minutes, as Kennedy was tripped up just outside the area — only for referee Yuichi Nishimura to decide there was no foul play on the sequence.
It was a decision that would later haunt Nagoya in the second half when the storm only grew stronger.
The hosts equalized in the 70th minute through the savvy of Nakamura, who nailed a quick free kick from 20 meters out as the Grampus defense was still lining up its wall.
But Nagoya showed the heart of a champion, keeping its chins up to recapture the advantage from Ogawa’s left-wing free kick, which center half Takahiro Masukawa headed back for Kennedy to nod in the winner.
At the other end of the standings, 15th-place Urawa Reds managed to move another point away from the drop zone despite a 0-0 home draw against Vegalta Sendai after 16th-place Ventforet Kofu lost 2-1 to Jubilo in Iwata.
Reds, on 33 points, are three points ahead of Ventforet who will be without Mike Havenaar next weekend against Niigata after the Japan forward was red-carded on Saturday.
Kofu’s defeat also secured Omiya Ardija’s place in the top flight for 2012. Fourteenth-place Omiya improved to 39 points following a 1-1 home draw to Kashima Antlers.