Former Japan international Sota Hirayama denied Urawa Reds the chance to stay within one point of leaders Yokohama F. Marinos by scoring a last-gasp winner in FC Tokyo’s 3-2 victory on Saturday.
Hirayama, who came off the bench in the 73rd minute, buried a diving header in the 90th minute by the near post, just when second-place Reds were pushing up and appeared to be closing in on the deciding goal.
Jang Hyun-soo and Masato Morishige netted for Tokyo in the opening half while Tomoaki Makino and Daisuke Nasu struck for Urawa on the other side of halftime.
The defeat left Reds on 46 points with nine games to go in the season, two points off the pace of Marinos, who were held to a 1-1 home draw by Cerezo Osaka. Tokyo climbed to eighth place, 10 points out of first.
The top six teams in J1 all failed to win.
“I always tell my players to use your head when you play and that’s exactly what happened,” Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic said. “We produce more games like tonight and by the time the Olympics rolls around in seven years, the J. League will have a lot more fans.
“I don’t need to speak about the importance of Hirayama to our club. He’s missed a chunk of time because of a serious injury the last two years, and the important thing for him is keep playing on a regular basis to get his game back.”
Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic felt his team outplayed Tokyo and deserved to come away with at least a point.
“We lost so anything I say will be interpreted as an excuse,” Petrovic said. “I thought we turned in the better performance, but that’s just my opinion.
“We had some players who tired over the last 15 minutes, which does concern me. That’s when we lost our concentration. Obviously we need to defend the set pieces better, but I think we’re playing the right style of football and can still finish the season strong.”
Reds were a no-show in the first half and deserved to be down at the break to Tokyo, which scored a pair of near identical goals to take the advantage.
In the eighth minute, Jang headed in a right-wing free kick by Kosuke Ota by the far post and after 36 minutes, Morishige reproduced the scene from a Keigo Higashi free kick to put the hosts up before halftime.
Urawa, though, erased Tokyo’s lead in a couple of early second-half minutes, starting with Makino’s header in the 51st minute from another free kick, this one by Yosuke Kashiwagi.
Two minutes later, Nasu had a header of his own after the cross by Tadaaki Hirakawa to restore parity, and had it not been for the excellent reflexes of Tokyo custodian Shuichi Gonda, Reds would have been up through Genki Haraguchi moments afterward.
As the game seesawed from end to end with the visitors looking like they might come out ahead, Hirayama had the last word by nodding in another Ota free kick, just his second strike of the campaign.
“Ota was putting in some good balls from the first half and I was sure I would get my chance,” Hirayama said. “It feels great to beat Urawa, especially at the National Stadium.”
Elsewhere, champions and third-place Sanfrecce Hiroshima (44 points) were beaten 2-0 away to Kawasaki Frontale, and fourth-place Kashima Antlers (41) were shocked 3-0 by relegation-threatened Ventforet in Kofu.
Omiya Ardija returned to losing ways, going down 1-0 away to Albirex Niigata while Sagan Tosu edged Shonan Bellmare 1-0 at home. Vegalta thrashed last-place Oita Trinita 6-0 at Sendai behind a brace by Makoto Kakuda.
In the lone afternoon kickoff, Shimizu S-Pulse ended Nagoya Grampus’ unbeaten run at nine games with a 2-1 home win thanks to Genki Omae’s 93rd-minute finish.