Stojkovic works magic with late-game changes


Staff Writer

Defending J. League champions Nagoya Grampus dug deep to beat Omiya Ardija 3-2 on Saturday and keep themselves firmly in the title shakeup going into the final four games of the season.

Grampus looked to be coasting to victory after Marcus Tulio Tanaka had given them a third-minute lead at Nack5 Stadium, but a two-goal salvo within two second-half minutes from Keigo Higashi and Rafael turned the tables in favor of relegation-threatened Ardija.

Wins for title-chasing Kashiwa Reysol and Gamba Osaka elsewhere in the J. League meant defeat would have been all but fatal for Nagoya’s title chances, but Keiji Tamada ensured the champions would live to fight another day with an equalizer in the 77th minute before Josh Kennedy hit the winner with an 84th-minute penalty.

“It was very exciting, definitely,” said Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic. “This is the beauty of a football game. For us, the most important thing is that we found the energy and the belief to reverse the result and get the three points.”

League leaders Reysol also came from behind to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-1 and stay two points clear of Gamba, who trounced Montedio Yamagata 5-0. Nagoya is one point further behind, and Stojkovic credited his 70th-minute introduction of attacking substitutes Mu Kanazaki and Kensuke Nagai for keeping his side in touch with the leaders.

“I think the two changes with Nagai and Kanazaki gave us more refreshment and more speed,” he said. “I really wanted to play with all my cards on the table and nothing in my pocket. I think this tactic and this idea gave us the result.”

Nagoya’s opener was as simple as they come, with Jungo Fujimoto floating a free kick into the box and Tulio escaping his marker to plant a clean header past Takashi Kitano.

Kennedy should have doubled Nagoya’s lead when he headed a gilt-edged chance wide soon after, but the visitors failed to turn their first-half superiority into goals and Omiya’s Hayato Hashimoto almost made them pay with a volley against the post five minutes before the break.

Nagoya’s Naoshi Nakamura crashed a shot against the underside of the bar early in the second half, and Tamada skimmed the woodwork again with a free kick from the edge of the box.

But the misses would soon haunt Grampus as Omiya scored twice in quick succession to turn the game on its head. First Higashi poked the ball past Seigo Narazaki after Rafael had managed to exploit a gap in the defense, before the Brazilian gave Ardija the lead two minutes later when he pounced at the back post.

Suddenly staring defeat in the face, Tamada handed Grampus a lifeline, reacting quickest to a loose ball in the box to slam home the equalizer.

Then, with the bit between their teeth, Nagoya grabbed the winner. Kennedy went down under a challenge from Yuki Fukaya, and the Australian held his nerve to dispatch his penalty twice after the referee had ordered a retake for encroachment.

“It was obviously a very tough game,” said Kennedy, who is now tied for league top scorer with Ventforet Kofu’s Mike Havenaar on 16 goals. “We had some good chances to build on the lead but we didn’t take them and we almost paid the price in the second half.”

At the other end of the table, Urawa Reds pulled themselves out of the relegation zone for at least 24 hours with a 2-1 win over Yokohama F. Marinos, although Ventforet can leapfrog the Saitama side by beating Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday.

In the day’s other games, Vegalta Sendai and Kawasaki Frontale drew 0-0, and Kashima Antlers and Vissel Kobe drew 1-1.