KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – J. League front-runners Kashiwa Reysol fought back from a goal down to keep their title destiny in their own hands going into the final week of the season with a 1-1 draw with Cerezo Osaka on Saturday.
Reysol went into the match at Hitachi Stadium with a three-point lead over second-place Nagoya Grampus, knowing that four points from their final two games would be enough to claim their first-ever championship just a year after winning the second division.
But the Chiba side also knew that Nagoya’s superior goal difference would make any slip-ups potentially lethal, and with Grampus ahead 3-0 at halftime in their game against Montedio Yamagata, Cerezo’s Taikai Uemoto took the title initiative away from Reysol with a goal in the 48th minute.
As Grampus momentarily climbed into first place in the table, however, Leandro Domingues dragged Kashiwa back into pole position with an equalizer in the 65th minute. Grampus went on to complete a 3-0 win over Montedio to remain one point off the pace going into the final weekend, while third-place Gamba Osaka are also still in title contention one point further back after a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai.
Kashiwa can clinch the title next Saturday with a win away to Urawa Reds — who all but confirmed their first-division survival with a 2-1 win over Avispa Fukuoka — regardless of the outcome of Nagoya’s visit to Albirex Niigata and Gamba’s trip to Shimizu S-Pulse.
Reysol manager Nelsinho knows the prize is now within his reach.
“Today was a very difficult game for us,” the Brazilian said. “The players wanted to win so badly that they made some mistakes in the first half, but we made some changes at halftime and the substitutes that came on did their job.
“This is just one point, but it is a huge point. Now we will go to Urawa and try to win the title.”
Nagoya’s win meant the title race would have gone down to the final day even if Kashiwa had beaten Cerezo, but striker Hideaki Kitajima was unconcerned that his side’s lead has been cut from three points to one.
“If we had to go to Urawa needing only a draw, then mentally it might not have worked to our advantage,” said the 33-year-old. “Knowing you need to win the game puts you in a positive frame of mind.”
Reysol struggled to find their rhythm in a tense first half, with the absence through Olympic team duty of right back Hiroki Sakai keenly felt from the outset. Replacement Tatsuya Masushima drew an angry rebuke from Leandro for misplacing a pass in the fifth minute, and the 26-year-old again looked uncertain as he slashed the first real chance of the match wide 10 minutes later.
Kashiwa returned after the break knowing that defeat would have dire consequences in light of Nagoya’s comfortable halftime lead over Montedio, and that scenario lurched into grim focus when Uemoto put Cerezo ahead two minutes after the restart. Hiroyuki Omata swung in a corner, Kenyu Sugimoto helped the ball on, and Uemoto was on hand to ram it into the net.
Midfielder Martinez almost made it two for the visitors with a shot from distance soon after, but Kashiwa woke up with a vengeance as substitutes Koki Mizuno and Junya Tanaka both went close before Leandro hit the equalizer. Masato Kudo knocked the ball down, and the Brazilian lashed a meaty left-footed drive past Kim Jin Hyeon.
Leandro almost had another when he lifted a shot over the bar in the 76th minute, but although a deciding goal never came, the draw still keeps Kashiwa on track to become the eighth championship-winning club in J. League history.
“Before the game I could feel the sense of the big occasion around the stadium,” said Cerezo manager Levir Culpi. “I want Nelsinho to win the title, but we are a professional team and of course we wanted to win. Kashiwa proved how mentally strong they are today.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Kashima Antlers beat Shimizu S-Pulse 3-0, Kawasaki Frontale beat Yokohama F. Marinos 3-0, and Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat Omiya Ardija 4-2.