KASHIMA, Ibaraki Pref. — Kashima Antlers crushed title rivals Gamba Osaka 5-1 to take an emphatic step toward a record third consecutive championship on Saturday, but Kawasaki Frontale made sure the race will go down to the wire with a 1-0 win over Albirex Niigata.
Antlers began the day knowing they could clinch the title with victory over third-place Gamba if Frontale failed to beat Albirex, and Shinzo Koroki and Takuya Nozawa put the defending champions on their way with two goals inside the space of two second-half minutes at Kashima Stadium.
Takahiro Futagawa pulled one back immediately for Gamba, but Koroki hit his second two minutes later to restoke the mood of expectation among the 35,598 crowd with Frontale struggling to break down Albirex at Todoroki Stadium.
Chong Tese’s 71st-minute winner for Kawasaki ultimately put Antlers’ celebrations on ice, but further goals for substitutes Yuzo Tashiro and Danilo put the finishing touches to a devastating show of strength at Kashima Stadium.
Antlers lead Frontale by two points going into the final weekend, but manager Oswaldo Oliveira is taking nothing for granted with a trip to Urawa Reds standing in the way of glory.
“I think it will be the most important and difficult game we have to play this season,” he said. “They are a very strong side with very good players, but to win the J. League three times in a row you have to fight very hard.”
Frontale must beat Kashiwa Reysol to stand any chance of winning the title, but their superior goal difference would tip the balance in their favor if Reds hold Antlers to a draw.
Defeat spelled the end for Gamba’s title hopes, however, and manager Akira Nishino looked shell-shocked as he tried to explain what had just happened.
“It was a big game and we knew it was going to be tough, but I wasn’t expecting this,” he said. “We started well and as the game went on we got more of the ball. At the start of the second half it looked like Antlers were finished.
“Then our mistake allowed them to score, and when they got another straight away it completely threw us out of our rhythm. I just thought: ‘That’s typical of Antlers.’ “
Neither side managed to create any clear-cut chances in a cagey first half, but the floodgates opened in the 57th minute. Mitsuo Ogasawara robbed Pedro Junior in the center circle before setting Koroki in motion, and the striker turned Sota Nakazawa inside out before rifling in the opener.
Before Gamba had the chance to recover, Nozawa made it two. Goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya could only parry a fierce drive from Marquinhos, and the midfielder kept his cool after picking up the rebound to curl an exquisite left-foot shot into the top corner.
Futagawa squeezed home Gamba’s reply in the 61st minute, but the defending champions were not finished yet. Nozawa raided down the left before swinging in a cross toward Koroki, and the 23-year-old needed just a glancing touch to redirect the ball past Fujigaya.
Lucas then picked up a second booking for flattening substitute Danilo, and Marquinhos and Cho Jae Jin exchanged angry words as tempers boiled over.
Tomokazu Myojin and Cho both went close after Gamba had composed themselves, but there was no way back when Tashiro and Danilo completed the rout in the dying minutes.
“Gamba are a good passing team, and they beat their opponents by breaking them down systematically,” Oliveira said. “It was very difficult to find a way through, but we scored at a good moment.”
Kyoto Sanga’s 1-0 win over Urawa sealed third place for Gamba and a spot in next season’s Asian Champions League, but Reysol’s bid to escape relegation ended after a 1-1 draw with Omiya Ardija.
The result meant Montedio Yamagata survived despite losing 2-0 to Nagoya Grampus, as did Vissel Kobe, who went down 1-0 against FC Tokyo. Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat Jubilo Iwata 1-0 in the day’s other game.