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Reds gain ground in J.League title race

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Urawa Reds made up ground in the J.League title race with a 1-0 win over Albirex Niigata as front-runners Yokohama F. Marinos and Sanfrecce Hiroshima both lost on Saturday night.

Urawa went into the match at Saitama Stadium trailing first-place Marinos by four points having lost 3-0 to the league leaders on Wednesday night, but a 62nd-minute goal from Shinzo Koroki ensured the Saitama side bounced back against mid-table Albirex.

Marinos retained the top spot despite losing 1-0 to Omiya Ardija — ending Omiya’s run of eight straight defeats in the process — but Urawa closed the gap to one point and leap-frogged Sanfrecce after the defending champions slumped to a 2-1 home loss to FC Tokyo.

“We have played two games in a week in this heat, and that’s very hard for both teams,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “It was a very difficult game and we had to be at our best to win it. The result was in the balance right until the end.

“Now that we’re moving into September it will get a little cooler. It has been tough playing in August when it’s been as hot as this, but I’m happy with the results we’ve had. There is always pressure on Urawa’s players, but they have coped with it very well.”

Reds were the big winners on a night when Daigo Watanabe ended Omiya’s wretched run of form with a 42nd-minute winner against Marinos, while Tokyo’s Takuji Yonemoto scored in the 82nd minute to ensure Sanfrecce could not take advantage.

“It wasn’t a comfortable win and we knew that a goal for Albirex would have changed everything,” said Urawa’s Yosuke Kashiwagi, whose through pass set up Koroki’s goal. “There were times where we were under pressure, but we managed to tough it out and we knew we always had the chance of scoring another ourselves.”

Albirex striker Tatsuya Tanaka returned to Saitama Stadium for the first time having left Reds over the offseason after 12 years of service, and the 30-year-old almost punished his former club with a looping shot that goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato tipped over the bar in the 8th minute.

Yuki Abe then set Urawa hearts racing when his sliding interception rebounded off his own post and into Kato’s grateful arms, and there was more consternation for the home side in the 38th minute when Niigata’s Leo Silva bundled the ball into the net only for the referee to award Reds a free kick instead.

Urawa upped the tempo in the second half, and the home side got its reward shortly after the hour mark. Kashiwagi picked out Koroki with a razor-sharp ball into the box, and the 27-year-old stretched to control it before lifting it over the ‘keeper with the most delicate of touches.

Ryota Moriwaki almost added another with a shot from distance in the 70th minute, before substitute Tsukasa Umesaki hit the crossbar direct from a corner as Reds closed out the game with the minimum of fuss.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Albirex manager Masaaki Yanagishita, whose side dropped to 11th place. “We did the things we set out to do, but we made some small mistakes and we need to work on that in training. I think we are getting stronger, but there are things we still need to improve.”

Elsewhere in the J.League, Yuya Osako celebrated his call-up to the national team with his sixth goal in four games as Kashima Antlers moved up to fourth with a 3-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol.

Cerezo Osaka dropped to fifth after a 0-0 draw with Kawasaki Frontale, while Nagoya Grampus extended their unbeaten streak to nine games after a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu.

Shonan Bellmare improved their chances of survival with a 3-2 win over Vegalta Sendai, but fellow strugglers Jubilo Iwata were held to a 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu.

In the day’s other game, Shimizu S-Pulse beat Oita Trinita 3-2.