Manabu Saito struck early in the second half to put Yokohama F. Marinos in control of the J. League title race with a 1-0 win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday.

Defending champions Sanfrecce went into the game at Nissan Stadium in first place ahead of Marinos only on goal difference, but Japan winger Saito’s 55th-minute dribble and shot was enough to settle a tight encounter and send Marinos two points clear at the top with five games of the season remaining.

“Since we played Urawa Reds in the league (on Aug. 28), I haven’t been able to play as well I would have liked, and I have had injuries and suspensions so I’m happy I could make a contribution in such an important game as this,” said Saito, who scored his fourth goal of the season. “We were confident we could beat Hiroshima, and I think we played well from start to finish.

“This was a big game, but we need to make sure we keep picking up the points in the games we have left. I have never won the championship before, and I want to have that experience with this team.”

Urawa beat Kashima Antlers 2-1 to jump into second one point ahead of Sanfrecce, with Cerezo Osaka moving ahead of Kashima on goal difference in fourth — six points off the championship pace — after a 2-1 win over Shonan Bellmare.

“It’s very disappointing not to win today,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu. “In the first half both teams played well and were evenly matched, and as the half wore on we got more and more into our attacking stride. Then Saito scored a goal that was typical of him — cutting in from the wing and shooting — and we should have known to defend that better.”

There was little to separate the two teams in an open first half, with Marinos’ Yuji Nakazawa heading a Shunsuke Nakamura free kick wide in the 17th minute before Sanfrecce’s Naoki Ishihara fluffed his lines when through one-on-one with the goalkeeper moments later.

Hiroshima midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama had his heart in his mouth as he prodded a clearance narrowly wide of his own goal in the 35th minute, but there would be no reprieve for the defending champions when Saito blasted Marinos into the lead 10 minutes into the second half.

The 23-year-old picked up the ball wide on the left, then cut inside and beat a crowd of defenders before cracking a right-foot drive past Shusaku Nishikawa and into the back of the net.

Sanfrecce defender Hiroki Mizumoto stung Yokohama goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto’s hands with a fierce shot from distance with the match moving into the final 10 minutes, but there was little the visitors could do as Marinos held firm to take another step toward a first title since 2004.

“I’m very happy that we were able to see this win through to the final whistle,” said Marinos manager Yasuhiro Higuchi. “This is a testament to the players’ level of concentration.

“There are still five games left to play. We need to make sure we concentrate, prepare well, and do our best for the remaining games.”

At the other end of the table, three-time champions Jubilo Iwata slipped even closer to relegation after losing 2-1 to Kawasaki Frontale. Yoshito Okubo scored in the 94th minute to snatch the win for Frontale, although a 2-0 win for Kashiwa Reysol over fourth-from-bottom Ventforet Kofu prevented Jubilo from drifting further than 10 points from safety.

Brazilian striker Wilson also struck in injury time to give Vegalta Sendai a 2-1 win over Nagoya Grampus, while Sho Ito hit a hat trick as Shimizu S-Pulse came through a wild game against Sagan Tosu with a 6-4 victory.

Elsewhere, bottom side Oita Trinita, whose relegation was confirmed in the last round of games, picked up only their second win all season, 1-0 over Omiya Ardija, while FC Tokyo beat Albirex Niigata 2-0.

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