SAITAMA — Washington kept the Urawa Reds firmly in the hunt for the J. League title with the only goal in their 1-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse in front of 48,378 fans at Saitama Stadium on Saturday.

The Brazilian scored on 17 minutes when a lofted cross from Alex Santos from the left of the area evaded the head of Choe Jae Jin and the striker deceived Takuma Edamura with close control before drilling the ball between Yohei Nishibe’s legs for his 17th league goal in as many games.

Urawa is in second position with 52 points from 24 games behind leader Gamba Osaka, with Kawasaki Frontale third on 47 points and Shimizu fourth on 44.

In the late game Saturday at Expo Stadium, Gamba won 4-0 against Frontale to move to 55 points and stay at the top of the pile.

At Saitama Stadium, Reds coach Guido Buchwald was relieved his side emerged unscathed against an S-Pulse team with its own title aspirations.

“It was a game between two of the top sides today and we had to win to stay in the title race,” Buchwald said.

“S-Pulse defended very deeply in numbers and our first priority was to make their defenders move and attack them from the wing — and indeed the goal came from the side.”

The Reds looked like a more threatening proposition after Washington’s goal and the Shimizu defense began to look extremely shaky.

But for all of Urawa’s patient buildup play, however, the final ball was usually wayward. This was much to the dismay of the predatory Washington, whose ire was mostly directed at the sloppy Alex Santos.

S-Pulse had to wait until just before the half-hour mark to trouble the Reds ‘keeper, when Marquinhos shrugged off the attention of Nobuhisa Yamada and trashed in a venomous strike from 25 meters that Norihiro Yamagishi turned around the post.

Much of what was good about Shimizu’s forays forward came via the stylish Marquinhos and it was his header two minutes later that drew a confident catch from Yamagishi, but that was to be the last chance for either side in a first period that spluttered to a halt.

The game came back to life on the hour mark when an excellent save by Nishibe off a Washington header sparked a goalmouth scramble, but some desperate defending kept out the Brazilian and Tatsuya Tanaka.

A second goal would have undoubtedly done much to kill off any hopes of a Shimizu equalizer but the paucity of good-enough passes to the forwards was no less evident than in the first half.

S-Pulse took this as their cue to try to steal a point from under the noses of their mighty opponents, going closest with two chances in a minute for Edamura.

The effervescent Marquinhos was the provider for both, Edamura’s first thumping left-foot strike parried away by Yamagishi and the second goal-bound effort blocked by Satoshi Horinouchi.

Buchwald heaped praise on his ‘keeper and backline for keeping a resurgent Shimizu from equalizing.

“Horinouchi, (Marcus) Tulio Tanaka, Yamagishi, (Keisuke) Tsuboi all played brilliantly today,” Buchwald said. “Marquinhos is a tricky player, but the defense handled him very well.

“After the goal, S-Pulse had to attack but we played solidly with strong defensive awareness and gave them very few chances.”

It wasn’t just solid defending that frustrated S-Pulse, though, with the Reds indulging in the crass art of time wasting — Alex Santos unsurprisingly the main instigator.

The ploy worked, much to the detriment of an otherwise entertaining fare, and the Reds held on for a scrappy win.

An upbeat Kenta Hasegawa has not thrown in the towel yet on his team’s surprise title challenge.

“We’ve still got 10 games to go, so nothing has finished yet,” the S-Pulse coach said.

“I think my players were a bit overwhelmed by the Reds fans. They are still a young and inexperienced bunch, but we still had chances. It was just a pity we couldn’t take them,” Hasegawa said.

In other games on Saturday, Yokohama F. Marinos beat Nagoya Grampus Eight 2-1 at Nissan Stadium, Avispa Fukuoka overcame Cerezo Osaka 1-0, Jubilo Iwata lost 3-2 at home to Oita Trinita and Sanfrecce Hiroshima got the better of Omiya Ardija 1-0.

Later on Saturday, JEF United Chiba won 2-0 against Kyoto Purple Sanga at Fukuda Denshi Arena.

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