SAITAMA – Urawa Reds let a precious chance to make up ground in the J.League title race slip through their fingers after a frustrating 0-0 draw with Cerezo Osaka on Saturday.
Third-place Reds went into the match at Saitama Stadium trailing league-leading duo Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai by six points with five games left to play, but 1-1 draws for Sanfrecce against Gamba Osaka and Vegalta against Jubilo Iwata gave Urawa the opportunity to cut the deficit.
The 2006 champions were unable to take advantage, however, hitting the woodwork twice and dominating Cerezo, but never managing to make the breakthrough that would have put a very different complexion on the league table.
As it stands, Sanfrecce remain top after a 76th-minute equalizer from Kazuyuki Morisaki rescued a point against Gamba, with Vegalta in second on goal difference after being pegged back by Jubilo in the 84th minute.
Reds now have one less game to bridge the six-point gap that separates them from the leading pair, and manager Mihailo Petrovic accepts the odds are stacked against them.
“Of course it is a difficult situation,” he said. “Six points is a lot to make up. The realistic target for us now is third place, but as long as there is still a chance to win the title we will keep going. In 2007, Urawa had a lead of something like nine points with five games left, but Kashima Antlers still came through to win the title.”
Urawa went into the match on the back of successive defeats to Consadole Sapporo and Vegalta, and Petrovic shouldered the blame for heaping pressure on his players with talk of the title.
“Maybe it’s my fault,” he said. “Before the Consadole game I told the players they should be aiming for the top, and I think that ended up having a negative effect. Maybe it would have been wiser to play down expectations and talk about finishing third.”
Urawa has serious competition for the Asian Champions League-qualifying spot that comes with third place, however, with Shimizu S-Pulse closing the gap to one point with a 2-1 win over Antlers. Nagoya Grampus stayed two points further back after a 1-1 draw with Yokohama F. Marinos, but Kashiwa Reysol fell four points adrift of Urawa after losing 4-1 to Omiya Ardija.
Reds were forced into an early substitution when defender Mitsuru Nagata went off clutching his leg in the 34th minute, but the change did little to knock the home side off balance as Marcio Richardes hit the crossbar minutes before halftime.
Genki Haraguchi was unlucky not to score after charging into the box 10 minutes after the restart, and the same player hit the post after rounding the goalkeeper just minutes later.
Yosuke Kashiwagi put the ball in the net only for the linesman to flag for offside in the 77th minute, but with Reds unable to break the deadlock, Cerezo almost stole it at the death. Kenyu Sugimoto charged forward into a dangerous position in injury time, but Urawa goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato was quick to smother his shot to leave the home side clinging onto faint hopes with Sanfrecce still to visit Saitama Stadium on Nov. 17.
“It’s a difficult situation, but we still have to play a direct rival for the title,” said defender Tomoaki Makino. “The fans will demand that we keep going until the end, and we have to keep believing.”
Elsewhere in the J.League, second-from-bottom Albirex Niigata slipped further into trouble after losing 2-0 to Sagan Tosu, while Vissel Kobe stayed ahead of 15th-place Omiya only on goal difference after a 3-3 draw with Kawasaki Frontale.
In the day’s other game, FC Tokyo beat Consadole 5-0.