KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Former J. League champions Gamba Osaka remained deep in relegation trouble despite salvaging a late 2-2 draw with Kashiwa Reysol on Wednesday, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima edged closer to their first-ever title after opening up a two-point gap at the top of the table with three games left to play.
Gamba went into their match at Hitachi Stadium third from bottom and three points adrift of safety, and Reysol’s Masato Kudo deepened the 2005 champions’ plight with the opening goal in the 12th minute.
Leandro pulled one back for Gamba, only for Kudo to strike again moments before halftime, but although Leandro rescued a point for the visitors with an equalizer in the 90th minute, results elsewhere clouded the relegation picture.
Albirex Niigata beat Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0 to move level in the drop zone with Gamba on 34 points, with Vissel Kobe in the final survival spot two points above after losing 2-1 to Yokohama F. Marinos. Omiya Ardija drew 0-0 with Kashima Antlers to stay one point further ahead.
“Tonight’s game was a very important one, and we knew that we had to take all three points,” said Gamba manager Masanobu Matsunami. “It’s disappointing, but the players kept fighting until the very end. We still have three games left and we will keep going.”
Sanfrecce pulled away at the other end of the table, beating already relegated Consadole Sapporo 3-0 to open up a two-point gap on nearest challengers Vegalta Sendai, who needed a 90th-minute Naoki Sugai goal to claim a 1-1 draw against Cerezo Osaka.
Gamba, meanwhile, are battling to preserve their unbroken first-division record, and Matsunami insists his players are equal to the job.
“I’m not a player so I don’t know how they are handling the pressure, but we have to win games and keep things simple,” he said. “We have to take each game as it comes. These are experienced players who know how to cope with the situation, so I’m not worried.”
Gamba’s task was made all the more difficult when Kudo opened the scoring, heading home a cross from Akimi Barada for his 12th goal of the season.
Goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya helped Gamba ride out a rocky patch when he thwarted Neto Baiano through on goal shortly before the half-hour mark, and the visitors recovered their footing sufficiently to notch an equalizer in the 37th minute. Takuya Takei swept a sublime long pass into the Reysol box, and Leandro stole in front of the defense to prod the ball over the line.
Kudo would not be silenced, however, and before the halftime whistle could sound, the 22-year-old had his second of the evening. Wataru Hashimoto swung a cross deep into the box, and Kudo connected with a volley that cannoned into the roof of the net.
Baiano squandered another chance to extend Reysol’s lead shortly after the restart, before Gamba’s Yasuhito Endo went close to regaining parity with a sliding volley that goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno blocked with a brave launch of his body.
But a frantic late surge eventually yielded its reward, Yasuyuki Konno releasing Leandro for the Brazilian to crash a shot past Sugeno with 90 minutes on the clock.
“We knew what was at stake going into tonight’s game,” said Gamba midfielder Tomokazu Myojin. “Nobody is satisfied with a draw, but if we can play with the same mentality and spirit in the games we have left, we can get out of this situation.”
Elsewhere, Urawa Reds held onto third place despite losing 4-2 to Kawasaki Frontale, but Nagoya Grampus moved one place behind them on goal difference after beating FC Tokyo 1-0.
In the day’s other game, Sagan Tosu beat Jubilo Iwata 3-2.