IWATA, Shizuoka Pref. – Unfashionable JEF United Ichihara stayed on course for its first-ever J. League first-division title after holding defending champion Jubilo Iwata 2-2 away in a pulsating draw on Sunday.
Brazilian striker Sandro looked to have put Ichihara on the way to a deserved win after Choi Yong Soo had canceled out Rodrigo Gral’s 28th-minute opener but Ryoichi Maeda popped up to salvage a draw for Iwata 13 minutes from time.
The result kept Ichihara top of the table on 27 points with two games of the first stage remaining, one clear of Yokohama F. Marinos with Iwata in third another point back.
Iwata had the better of the opening exchanges in a cagey first half at Yamaha Stadium and Gral almost broke the deadlock when he forced a fine save out of Ichihara goalkeeper Ryo Kushino with a rasping drive on 13 minutes.
The former Gremio man was not to be denied a second time however as he reacted quickest to put the home side in front with a close-range header.
Hiroshi Nanami swung in a deep corner from the left and when Kushino could only parry Maeda’s far post header, Gral was on hand to nod home the rebound.
Ichihara created little going forward in the opening period but coach Ivica Osim’s half-time talk seemed to have an immediate effect as the visitors came out firing on all cylinders after the interval.
South Korea striker Choi missed a glorious opportunity to draw Ichihara level on 49 minutes as he showed too much of the ball to Jubilo ‘keeper Arno Van Zwam but got a chance to redeem himself two minutes later.
Referee Toshimitsu Yoshida had no hesitation in pointing to the spot after Toshiya Fujita hauled down Naotake Hanyu and Choi calmly converted to pull his side level.
Ichihara continued to dictate the tempo and deservedly took the lead through Brazilian Sandro on 76 minutes only for Maeda to head home and silence the delirious traveling fans seconds later to earn his side a point.
In Sunday’s other match, Brazilian striker Emerson struck a late equalizer to give Urawa Reds a 1-1 draw away at Kashiwa Reysol.
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