YOKOHAMA – Yokohama F Marinos sorely missed captain Shunsuke Nakamura as the J1 leaders went down 2-1 at the hands of Nagoya Grampus on Sunday.
Goals from Josh Kennedy and Jungo Fujimoto consigned Marinos to their first defeat in seven games, allowing champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima to pull within two points of the top spot with three matches left to play.
Urawa Reds, level on points with Hiroshima who drew 1-1 at newly crowned Nabisco Cup champions Kashiwa Reysol, are away to Vegalta Sendai later Sunday.
Fourth-place Kashima Antlers closed the gap to three points with a 2-1 away victory over Shonan Bellmare, Japan striker Yuya Osako netting a 92nd-mintue winner.
Nakamura missed his first match of the season due to gallbladder inflammation, although he is expected to recover in time for Marinos’ next game — the Emperor’s Cup last 16 tie at home to AC Nagano Parceiro on Nov. 20.
Outgoing Nagoya manager Dragan Stojkovic said Marinos had no chance of winning without Nakamura, who he believes has been the league’s best player this season.
“I’m not happy to not see him play because I like his style, how he plays,” Stojkovic said. “For me, he’s the MVP this year. It doesn’t matter if Marinos are champions or not, Nakamura is the MVP of the year. He plays beautiful football.”
“It’s very simple: If Marinos’ No. 1 engine is off, Marinos are off. No power to win against Grampus. No free kicks, no set plays, nothing.”
Grampus had won just once over their six previous games to completely fall out of the title race, but caught a break to go up in the eighth minute when Yuji Nakazawa handled to gift the visitors a penalty.
Kennedy converted for his 12th goal of the season and first in three games.
Marinos weren’t a total disaster without their skipper, managing to equalize after 51 minutes thanks to Manabu Saito’s run that set up Shingo Hyodo for a strike from 12 meters out.
But clearly, Yasuharu Higuchi’s side lacked the creativity and decisiveness Nakamura brings as the hosts let Fujimoto reestablish Grampus’ lead in the 53rd minute for their second win in a row.
Kennedy, who showed a lot of effort while he plugged in a full shift, felt acting captain Yuzo Kurihara should have been sent off for an altercation late in the first half, when both players ended up being booked.
“Just stupidity on his behalf,” Kennedy said of the Japan defender. “It’s disappointing that he did such an act. He should be a bit embarrassed as captain.”
“He hit me in the face. Any other player, it’s a red card. I’m sure the referees will analyze the video, and he shouldn’t play the next game if they have any sense.”
Stojkovic, who has not been given a new contract by Grampus for next season, said his team’s victory was undisputable.
“It’s a big result for us,” he said. “Regarding our positions in the standings, some will think there’s a big difference between Grampus and Marinos.”
“But in real life, I don’t think there’s any difference. We absolutely deserved to win the game.”