SAITAMA — Brazilian striker Leandro dealt Urawa Reds’ title hopes a savage blow as Vissel Kobe stunned the jaded Asian club champions 1-0 in the J. League Saturday.
Having won just one of its previous three league games, Urawa was looking for a lift ahead of Wednesday’s crunch Asian Champions League semifinal second leg against bitter rival Gamba Osaka.
But instead Gert Engels’ men had to trudge back to the dressing room with boos and catcalls from their own fans ringing in their ears after Leandro rifled home the decider on 83 minutes to give Kobe a fully deserved three points.
The result saw Urawa drop six points behind leader Kashima Antlers (53), which beat Kyoto Sanga 2-1 thanks to goals from Shinzo Koroki and Marquinhos, and with just five games left, Engels was pessimistic of his team’s chances of winning the championship.
“This is big damage I think for our hopes for the championship. I can tell you now that the chance is high that we win our games against (Albirex) Niigata and (Consadole) Sapporo but even then you don’t know what the other teams are going to do,” shrugged the German.
“I have never been as critical of my team this year as I have today. These fans are expecting things from us and helping us and we need to show a little bit more and change things here.”
With first-choice goalkeeper Ryota Tsuzuki suspended in the ACL, Engels handed Norihiro Yamagishi his first league start of the season to prepare him for Wednesday’s crunch cup tie here, and the 30-year-old got an early boost with an excellent save to deny Leandro after nine minutes.
Yoshito Okubo should have given Kobe the lead with a free header that sailed over the bar and, with time and space, the Japan international’s reluctance to pull the trigger resulted in another opportunity going begging on the half-hour mark.
Although Kobe was more threatening going forward, the best chance of the first period fell Urawa’s way, but Tatsuya Enomoto pulled off a magnificent double save to thwart Edmilson and Naohiro Takahara shortly before the interval.
The visitors continued to press, and after Yamagishi had produced a series of excellent stops and the woodwork had denied Okubo, their persistence paid off as Leandro hammered the winner into the top right-hand corner.
“We played collectively today. Urawa is an individually strong team so we knew we would have to fight collectively. Our discipline and fighting spirit were perfect,” said Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda.
Oita Trinita kept the pressure on Kashima at the top, improving to 51 points after Shingo Suzuki’s goal earned a 1-0 win over FC Tokyo and moved it into second place above Nagoya Grampus, which plays Yokohama F. Marinos on Sunday.
Fourth-placed Kawasaki Frontale saw its title bid dented with a 2-0 reverse at Shimizu S-Pulse, while Gamba moved level on points with Urawa after Masato Yamazaki snatched a last-gasp winner in a 2-1 defeat of struggling Jubilo Iwata.
Iwata dropped back into the relegation zone while Tokyo Verdy climbed out of the bottom three with a 1-0 win at home to second-from-bottom Omiya Ardija.
JEF United Chiba was held to a 0-0 draw at home to Niigata after winning five games in a row. Last-placed Sapporo hosts Kashiwa Reysol on Sunday.
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