HIROSHIMA – J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima moved back into first place on goal difference ahead of Yokohama F Marinos with a narrow 1-0 victory over Vegalta Sendai on Saturday.
In the day’s only J1 match and in what was a meeting of last season’s top two teams, Naoki Ishihara struck the lone goal in the dying minutes to hand an ever-crucial win to Hajime Moriyasu’s men, who improved to 56 points with four games left in the campaign.
Hiroshima’s view from the top, though, may last only overnight with Marinos playing away to relegated Oita Trinita on Sunday, and Urawa Reds, two points off the pace, hosting Kashiwa Reysol in a preview of the Nov. 2 Nabisco Cup final.
The top five clubs, including fourth-place Cerezo Osaka and Kashima Antlers, are separated by just six points.
“I had a bunch of chances in the first half and had I taken even one of them, I could have made life so much easier for us,” said Ishihara, who scored his eighth goal of the year. “So I feel badly about today’s performance more than anything.”
“We have four games to go, and I want to score in every one of them. When it’s all said and done, I hope we can celebrate again with everyone.”
After a week off for the league cup final, Sanfrecce are away to Kashiwa Reysol before the international break.
“For some reason, we’re the only ones playing today. But that gave us the opportunity to put some pressure on the other teams if we won,” Hiroshima captain and the league’s reigning MVP Hisato Sato said.
“I think the circumstances will change and will be unpredictable over these last four games, but the most important thing is to stay focused.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be swayed by the result from week to week.”
The typhoon that passed by the nation from Friday brought an autumn chill to the Edion Stadium, where the two sides staged a lackluster first half.
Sanfrecce, eager to regain the league lead after losing to Marinos in a top-of-the-table clash last weekend, had the better moments but failed to produce a single shot on target before halftime, Ishihara missing a pair of free headers from the center of the box.
Sendai rode a five-game unbeaten run, including three wins, into Hiroshima but appeared content to settle for a point, having an outside shot at the third Asian Champions League place.
The second half invited more of the same with the hosts doing all the attacking, and Makoto Teguramori’s side defending tenaciously to keep Hiroshima off the scoreboard.
Sanfrecce No. 10 Yojiro Takahagi pulled the strings well in an effort to break the deadlock, but Sendai held the fort as a draw began looming on the horizon.
But with six minutes left, Japan midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, under the gaze of national coach Alberto Zaccheroni, finally gave the crowd something to cheer about by creating the deciding goal with superb timing and vision.
Aoyama drew the defense on the edge of the penalty area before laying off to Ishihara, who finally found the net with an angular strike from the right.
Sendai, who drifted 10 points off an ACL berth, were outshot 18 to 4 by Hiroshima.
“We were reminded why we lost the title to them last season,” Teguramori said. “There’s a good reason why they’re in it for the championship again this season, and we’re stuck in the middle of the table. They didn’t give us one decent shot all game.”