YOKOHAMA – Yokohama F. Marinos blew their chance to clinch the J. League title a week early after a 2-0 defeat to Albirex Niigata on Saturday, letting Sanfrecce Hiroshima back into contention heading into the final day of the season.
League-leaders Marinos went into the game at Nissan Stadium knowing that their four-point cushion at the top meant a win would be enough to claim their first title since 2004, but second-half goals from Albirex’s Kengo Kawamata and Musashi Suzuki put the celebrations on ice in front of a crowd of 62,632.
Sanfrecce beat relegated Shonan Bellmare 1-0 to cut the gap to two points heading into next Saturday’s fixtures, with Kashima Antlers still clinging to faint hopes three points behind Marinos after a 2-1 win over Cerezo Osaka. Cerezo were eliminated from title contention, as were Urawa Reds, who lost 4-1 to Sagan Tosu.
Marinos must now travel to Kawasaki Frontale on the final day of the season, while Sanfrecce and Antlers square off in Kashima. Marinos have a goal difference of +19, while Sanfrecce are on +20 and Antlers on +10.
“We really wanted to settle it today, but this is the reality of the situation,” said Marinos manager Yasuhiro Higuchi. “Now we have to decide it in the 34th game of the season. We have to concentrate on winning next Saturday, and we have to start preparing for the game now.
“The mood is low in the locker room right now, but I told the players they have to pick themselves up by tomorrow. We still hold our destiny in our own hands.”
Albirex went into the match having won four of their five previous games, and Marinos striker Marquinhos is hoping Frontale —who moved up to fifth with a 1-0 win over Oita Trinita — will give his side less problems at Todoroki Stadium next weekend.
“We knew it was going to be a difficult game against a tough opponent, and that was the way it turned out,” said the Brazilian. “Albirex play a lot of long balls, and they are a very tricky opponent. Of course Frontale are a good team as well, but they pass the ball a lot more and that makes them more like us in style.”
Albirex’s Hideya Okamoto gave Marinos a scare when he let off a shot in the fifth minute, and Kosuke Nakamachi missed a chance to settle the home side’s nerves when he fired straight at goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi from inside the box midway through the first half.
Higashiguchi then kept out a diving header from Marquinhos as Marinos began to get into their stride, but Albirex continued to look threatening and Atomu Tanaka whistled a free kick just wide of the post 10 minutes into the second half.
Yuji Nakazawa — on target for Marinos in last weekend’s 1-0 win over Jubilo Iwata — thundered a header from a Shunsuke Nakamura corner wide in the 63rd minute, before Nakamura drew a sprawling save from Higashiguchi with a free kick minutes later.
But Kawamata took the wind out of the home side’s sails in stunning fashion, stuffing home a loose ball after a 72nd-minute corner for his 22nd goal of the season.
Suzuki then embellished the point with Niigata’s second in injury time, latching onto a defense-splitting ball from Leo Silva to finish in style and send Marinos’ title challenge spinning into uncertainty.
“It was a difficult atmosphere to play in, but the players did well to keep their concentration,” said Albirex manager Masaaki Yanagishita.
“Nakamura is a very clever player, and if you only put one marker on him, he can find a way through. I told my whole team to watch him, including the forwards.”