SAITAMA – Sanfrecce Hiroshima maintained a wafer-thin advantage in the J. League title race despite losing 2-0 to Urawa Reds on Saturday, as Vegalta Sendai closed the gap at the top to one point with two games of the season left to play.
Sanfrecce went into the game at Saitama Stadium holding a two-point lead over second-place Vegalta and looking to take a big step toward their first-ever championship, but instead goals either side of halftime from Urawa’s Tsukasa Umesaki and Keita Suzuki left them sweating on the outcome of Sendai’s visit to Kashima Antlers.
Despite racing to a 3-1 halftime lead at Kashima Stadium, however, Vegalta were unable to hang on for the win that would have sent them top one point ahead of Sanfrecce, as Antlers came back to salvage a 3-3 draw.
“I didn’t know what was happening in Vegalta’s game,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu. “We’re still top of the table, so it all depends on what we do.
“If we can do what we are capable of doing and win our remaining two games, then we will be champions.”
Sanfrecce can clinch the title with a win at home to Cerezo Osaka next Saturday if Vegalta lose against Albirex Niigata the same day, but midfielder Mihael Mikic insists second place would not constitute failure for a team whose best achievement to date is a runnerup finish in 1994.
“We don’t have pressure, because the worst we can be is second,” said the Croatian. “That is also the best in the history of Hiroshima. We are not nervous. We are easy, and we will prepare game by game and what happens happens.
“We have a very hard game against Cerezo. They have played very well in the last two months and we have to give our best in this game. We don’t have more chances to make mistakes. We were lucky today, and in the next games we need to have maximum concentration.”
Neither side showed much attacking ambition in a dour first half, but Umesaki made sure it ended with a flourish with the opener four minutes before the interval. Suzuki played the ball into space in the box, and Umesaki took a touch before sweeping it home with a sliding shot.
The goal stung the visitors into action as play resumed after halftime, but Reds also looked refreshed and Suzuki barrelled straight through the heart of the Sanfrecce defense to notch his side’s second in the 61st minute.
Yojiro Takahagi missed an excellent chance to haul Hiroshima back into the match when he blazed over from close range, and a smart reflex save from Urawa goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato to deny striker Hisato Sato compounded a frustrating afternoon for the visitors, lightened only by news of Vegalta’s second-half collapse.
“I heard that Sendai were winning 3-1 at halftime,” said Sanfrecce defender Hiroki Mizumoto. “So I have to say we have been a bit lucky.”
At the other end of the table, Albirex slipped closer to the relegation trapdoor after conceding a 95th-minute goal to lose 1-0 to Kawasaki Frontale, while three of their immediate rivals all won.
Gamba Osaka beat Shimizu S-Pulse 3-1, Vissel Kobe squeezed past FC Tokyo 1-0, and Omiya Ardija beat Cerezo 3-1 to leave Albirex five points from safety and Gamba still in the drop zone trailing Vissel by two points. Already relegated Consadole Sapporo lost 3-2 to Sagan Tosu.
Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus beat Jubilo Iwata 2-0 to keep their minuscule title hopes mathematically alive, and Kashiwa Reysol beat Yokohama F. Marinos 2-1.