YOKOHAMA – Manabu Saito dragged Yokohama F. Marinos’ Asian Champions League challenge back from the dead with two goals in the space of a minute in a 2-1 win over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Tuesday night.
Marinos looked to be heading for a first-round exit when Han Kyo-won gave South Koreans Jeonbuk the lead in the seventh minute at Nissan Stadium, but a spectacular 64th-minute Saito strike changed the face of the game before the 24-year-old put the home side in front a minute later.
Melbourne Victory upset reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande 2-0 in the night’s other game to leave all four teams in Group G on seven points with one round still to play, and Marinos can clinch their place in the knock-out round with a win over Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou in China next Tuesday.
“I’m happy but personally I could have played better,” said Saito, who scored his first goals of the competition. “I need to contribute more to the team, but I’m glad to have scored tonight.
“If we win the next game we’re through, and we’ll give it everything to try to get the three points. We lost away to Jeonbuk and our opponents are a strong team, but if we play like we did tonight we can win.”
Nothing less than a victory against Guangzhou will be enough to send Marinos through to the knock-out round, but with a J. League game against Kashiwa Reysol up next on Saturday, manager Yasuhiro Higuchi knows he must juggle his resources wisely.
“Jeonbuk have been playing a lot of games in the K-League recently and I could see that they looked tired in the second half,” said Higuchi. “We have to think about the turnover but we aren’t doing well in the J. League and this game against Kashiwa is very important.
“We have to look at what state the players are in physically, but this win has given us a big mental boost.”
Marinos got off to the worst possible start when Han gave Jeonbuk the lead in the seventh minute, reacting quickest to the loose ball after goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto had parried a shot on the line.
Marinos struggled to get to grips with Jeonbuk’s physicality in midfield, and a long-range Shunsuke Nakamura shot that goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae easily saved in the 32nd minute was the first effort on goal the home side managed to carve out.
But Marinos picked up the pace as the second half got under way, and Saito leveled the score with a rocket. The livewire winger collected the ball from a throw-in on the left, then unleashed a curling shot from outside the box that nestled into the top corner of the Jeonbuk goal.
Saito then went one better a minute later, latching onto a Yoshihito Fujita through-ball that the Jeonbuk defense failed to deal with before steering the ball deftly past Kwoun to put Marinos in front.
Nakamura shot wide as Yokohama continued to ride a wave of momentum, and the home side comfortably saw out the victory against a team that handed it a 3-0 defeat in the reverse fixture in February.
“We got revenge on them,” said Higuchi. “Our players’ pride was hurt when we lost to them, so to win tonight feels very good.”