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SAITAMA — Omiya Ardija raised hopes of a genuine J. League title race with a comprehensive 3-1 win over league leaders Kashima Antlers on Saturday night.

Antlers looked to be cruising toward a third consecutive title after opening up an eight-point gap at the top of the table, but a fifth-minute goal from Tomoya Uchida at Nack 5 Stadium gave notice that Ardija were not going to roll over and hand them the crown.

Substitute Kohei Tokita made the points safe with another in the 82nd minute, before Mato Neretljak put the finishing touches to an assured counterattacking performance that hit Kashima where it hurt and made a mockery of Omiya’s lowly league position.

“Antlers are a strong attacking side, so we played compact in the middle and shut them down that way,” Ardija manager Chang Woe Ryong said after the match.

“We fought brilliantly until the finish. Antlers are a very big team in Asia, and to win 3-1 is a great result. I hope we can go on to play even better, because that was a real confidence builder.”

The match was barely two minutes old when Kashima striker Marquinhos clashed heads with Omiya’s Yasuhiro Hato, and the Brazilian was still receiving treatment on the touchline when the home side took the lead.

Chikara Fujimoto thumped a low cross into the box at pace, and after Naoki Ishihara’s fresh-air overhead kick attempt diverted Kashima’s attention, Uchida was on hand to rifle a first-time shot into the corner of the net.

“He knew Marquinhos was going to score, so he went in with his head,” Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira said of Hato’s challenge.

“It was clear that he wasn’t going for the ball.”

Veteran captain Fujimoto’s penetrating runs down the right flank continued to trouble Kashima, and the attacking trident of Uchida, Ishihara and Brazilian Rafael threatened to add to Omiya’s tally as the champions struggled to cope with the home side’s speed on the break.

Ardija goalkeeper Koji Ezumi tipped a Takeshi Aoki drive over the bar as Kashima began to settle toward the end of the first half, but the break gave Omiya time to recharge its batteries.

Tokita capitalized when Ishihara sent in a cross from the right and strike partner Rafael cushioned the ball into his path, leaving the 23-year-old in the clear to double Omiya’s lead.

Neretljak had little problem beating Daiki Iwamasa to complete the rout minutes later, and Takuya Nozawa’s injury-time goal was little consolation for Oliveira.

“They had good chances and they used their chances well,” he said. “Games like this happen sometimes.

“It’s soccer. You can’t define it.

“It’s hard to keep going for 34 games. In 2007 it happened, and last year too, so we hope we can survive and keep our position.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Urawa Reds’ atrocious run continued as Hiroyuki Komoto struck the winner to give Vissel Kobe a 3-2 victory at Home’s Stadium. Reds have now lost their last seven league games, and have slipped to ninth in the table after reaching the season’s halfway point in second.

Albirex Niigata continued their own slide as Keiji Tamada gave Nagoya Grampus a 1-0 win, while Yokohama F. Marinos frustrated JEF United Chiba’s bid to escape relegation with an equalizer to draw 1-1.

FC Tokyo beat Oita Trinita 2-0 to leave the Kyushu club’s relegation a mere formality, and Gamba Osaka beat Jubilo Iwata 3-1.

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