YOKOHAMA – Sanfrecce Hiroshima escaped with minimal damage to their J.League title ambitions after Yokohama F. Marinos missed a second-half penalty in a 0-0 draw with the division leaders on Saturday.
Sanfrecce went into the game at Nissan Stadium with a five-point lead over Vegalta Sendai and Urawa Reds at the top of the table, but that position hung in the balance when substitute Mihael Mikic brought down Yokohama’s Yuji Ono inside the box in the 75th minute.
Ono took the kick himself only to blast it high over the crossbar, however, allowing Sanfrecce to breathe a sigh of relief and open up a provisional six-point gap with Vegalta and Reds playing later in the evening.
Vegalta went on to cut Sanfrecce’s lead down to three with a 2-1 win over Gamba Osaka, but Urawa’s championship hopes took a severe hit after a humiliating 2-1 home loss to Consadole Sapporo, who last weekend became the fastest team to be relegated in J.League history.
“We were lucky, but we need to be lucky if we want to be champions,” said Mikic. “In the last 10 minutes we had chances to win. Of course one point away against Yokohama is good, but if we had won today we would have had one hand on the trophy.
“Now we have six more games, starting with a hard home game against Kashiwa and then an away game against Gamba. We must play these next two games at 100 percent and win them if we want to be the champions.”
Hiroshima has never won the title despite being one of the J.League’s original members, but Mikic is undaunted by the task in hand.
“It is a new position,” said the Croatian. “Maybe we don’t have so much experience, but we have the best age. Maybe that will help us to become the champions.”
Both teams enjoyed spells of possession without being able to do much with it in a first half of tentative shadow boxing, and a pair of shots from Yokohama’s Dutra was the nearest either side came to troubling the opposition goal.
The second period began in far livelier fashion, however, and after Manabu Saito had gone close to giving Marinos the lead, Sanfrecce’s Hisato Sato drew a smart reflex save out of goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto before Hironori Ishikawa crashed the followup into the side-netting.
The match gradually lapsed back into a cagey stalemate, but Ono provided a rare moment of penetration when he burst into the box and went down under Mikic’s challenge. The 19-year-old’s effort from the spot left much to be desired, however, and Sanfrecce almost snatched the win at the death when Kohei Shimizu ghosted in to shoot wide in injury time.
“In the first half both teams were testing each other out, and although we were hanging on at times we stuck with it,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu. “The first half was about patience, and in the second half we tried to raise it up a gear. We had our chances, but couldn’t get the goal.
“We always look to get three points, but I want to look at the positives and keep moving forward. This point has allowed us to keep moving on toward the last six games.”
Elsewhere in the J.League, Yoichiro Kakitani hit the winner in the 86th minute as Cerezo Osaka beat Sagan Tosu 3-2 to pull further away from the relegation zone, while Kashima Antlers also took a step toward safety with a 5-1 win over FC Tokyo.
Albirex Niigata drew 0-0 with Vissel Kobe, Nagoya Grampus also played out a scoreless tie with Omiya Ardija, and Kashiwa Reysol beat Kawasaki Frontale 1-0.
In the day’s other game, Taisuke Muramatsu scored the only goal to give Shimizu S-Pulse a 1-0 win over Jubilo Iwata in the Shizuoka derby.