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Marinos poised to capture first league title since 2004 as stretch run starts


Staff Writer

Yokohama F. Marinos may hold the advantage in the J. League title race with five games remaining, but all three of the front-running teams will be confident of lifting the trophy come the end of the season.

Marinos beat previous leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 on Saturday to move into a two-point lead at the top of the table, with Urawa Reds climbing into second a point ahead of Sanfrecce after a 2-1 win over Kashima Antlers.

Cerezo Osaka and Antlers both retain an outside interest in the title six points behind Marinos in fourth and fifth place, respectively, but after Manabu Saito’s 55th-minute goal sank Sanfrecce in Saturday’s top-of-the-table showdown, the momentum is back with Marinos after two successive scoreless draws.

“Sanfrecce were really up for it from the start, so I think they must have tired as the game went on,” said Marinos midfielder Seitaro Tomisawa. “As soon as we scored, they started tailing off.”

With games against four teams in the bottom half of the table still to play before a final-day clash with sixth-place Kawasaki Frontale, Marinos will certainly fancy their chances of capturing a first title since 2004. But with the morale boost of Saturday’s win over Antlers under their belts, Reds can also look forward with confidence.

“There was always the chance that something could happen in an instant, so we couldn’t afford to drop our guard or lose concentration,” said Urawa defender Daisuke Nasu. “We had to stay switched on right until the end. Mentally and physically, it was a very taxing game.”

Reds’ tough season run-in — facing four teams from the top half of the table including Cerezo on the final day — will surely test their resolve further, while Sanfrecce cannot expect an easy ride either. The defending champions must take on four top-half teams including a visit to Kashima Stadium on the final day, but captain Hisato Sato insists predictions are futile even at this late stage of the season.

“Reds winning means that ourselves and Kashima have slipped off the pace a little,” he said. “But we still have five games left. When you consider that means a maximum of 15 points, anything can happen.”

In the always-unpredictable J. League, it usually does.

Jubilo Iwata will believe they can escape relegation for as long as there is still a chance, but Saturday’s heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Kawasaki Frontale will be a hard blow to recover from.

Yoshito Okubo scored in the 94th minute to give Frontale all three points from a game in which second-from-bottom Jubilo had led, leaving the three-time champions 10 points adrift of safety with only five games remaining.

Relegation will be confirmed on Sunday if Jubilo lose to local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse and Ventforet Kofu beat FC Tokyo, and defender Yuichi Komano knows his team will have to improve on last weekend’s effort to beat the drop.

“It’s good that we were able to open the scoring, but we seemed to be scared of the pressure they were putting us under,” said Komano. “We couldn’t use the ball well once we had won it from them. Our field of vision got narrower, and we also needed to commit less fouls. Next is the derby, but whichever team we are playing, we need to win.”

Oita Trinita picking up only their second win of the season last Saturday may have delighted the neutrals, but beaten opponents Omiya Ardija are unlikely to have felt so charitable.

Trinita, already relegated from the first division going into the game, beat Omiya 1-0 thanks to a goal in first-half injury time from Akihiro Sakata, leaving Ardija mired in a remarkable slump that has seen them lose 13 of their last 14 games despite topping the table as recently as July.

“The theory in football is that you should try never to concede a goal at the beginning or the end of a half, but that’s exactly what we did,” said Ardija manager Tsutomu Ogura, whose team has now slipped to 12th in the table. “That threw our plans for the second half right out the window.

“I sent the players out for the second half saying there were still 45 minutes to turn the game around, and then I made substitutions. But I could feel Oita’s desire to win was just too strong.”

Quotable: “Whether I play or don’t play, I always try to prepare with the same level of tension.”

— Shimizu S-Pulse striker Sho Ito stays cool after scoring a hat trick in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Sagan Tosu.