Reds drop out of first place with scoreless draw against Ventforet


Urawa Reds’ reprisal at the top of the J.League proved to be short-lived as the former Asian champions were held to a 0-0 draw by Ventforet Kofu on Tuesday.

Urawa had returned to the summit of J1 for the first time in four years after Saturday’s games, but was stifled by relegation-challenged Kofu in the last soccer match to be played at the National Stadium before its rebuilding begins in July for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Unseating Mihailo Petrovic’s side for the league lead by one point were Sagan Tosu, who improved to 24 points with a 1-0 victory at home to Kashiwa Reysol.

Six days ahead of Japan’s World Cup squad announcement, Tuesday’s performance could not have done any favors for fringe internationals like Reds’ Genki Haraguchi.

“It was a really good atmosphere here as it always is,” Haraguchi said of the birthplace of Japanese professional soccer 21 years ago. “I used to come here all the time as a kid to watch the national team play.

“The manager is the one who picks the team so all I can do is go out there and play my heart out. There’s one more game left (on Saturday) and it’s the derby, so I’ll worry about playing as well as I can in that and let the rest take care of itself.”

If the occasion at National Stadium was memorable, the first half was anything but, marked by indecision from both teams, especially Urawa Reds who seemed content with just moving the ball and not making a direct effort to put it into the net.

While Ventforet weren’t exactly looking to trade punch for punch with the Saitama giants, sitting back for the counterattacks, Reds needed 42 minutes to produce their first shot on target and failed to muster another one before the final whistle.

Kofu went into the match as the second-worst scoring side in the top flight with only eight goals from 11 games, trailing only last-place Tokushima Vortis, who suffered a 3-0 away defeat at the hands of Gamba Osaka.

Urawa won a couple of free kicks around the box during the dying minutes and Kofu had defender Hideomi Yamamoto sent off in the 91st minute, but the designated hosts held firm to snatch a big point in their campaign for survival.

Playing for the fourth time in 10 days, Petrovic admitted his team was fatigued and that the pressure of being in first place may have gotten to his charges.

“We’ve been playing with few days in between games and situations like this tend to favor teams that play defensively,” Petrovic said.

“It’s also the first time we’ve gone top since I’ve been here. We’ve never felt the pressure of being leaders before, and that may have affected our performance.”

Elsewhere in J1, lowly Vegalta Sendai stunned Vissel Kobe 4-3 at home, Yuki Muto deciding the game in the 76th minute. Kashima Antlers were tripped up 2-1 at home by Nagoya Grampus for their second straight loss.

FC Tokyo dropped their third in a row, losing 1-0 to Omiya Ardija at Ajinomoto, while Albirex Niigata came away with a fortunate 2-1 home win over Shimizu, collecting the three points with an own goal in the 95th minute — three minutes after S-Pulse had equalized through Yasuhiro Hiraoka.

Cerezo overwhelmed


Defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande thrashed Cerezo Osaka 5-1 in a show of force to kick off the knockout rounds of the Asian Champions League on Tuesday night, while three-time winner Pohang Steelers had a 2-1 comeback win at K-League rival Jeonbuk.

Marcello Lippi’s Evergrande lineup has an enormous advantage ahead of the return match in China next week, with progression to the quarterfinals almost certain after the lopsided result in Osaka.

Elkeson and Muriqui each scored twice for the Chinese Super League powerhouse and Gao Lin added another, while Italy international Alessandro Diamanti was instrumental in creating attack opportunities for Evergrande.

Muriqui ran onto a Diamanti pass to score the first goal in the 22nd minute and, after Ariajasuru Hasegawa equalized in the 30th, Elkeson scored twice within four minutes to make it 3-1 before halftime.

China striker Gao made it 4-1 in the 78th and Muriqui finished off with six minutes remaining with a goal from close range.

In a South Korean derby featuring two former Asian champions, Jeonbuk opened the scoring with Lee Jae-sung’s header in the 53rd minute but Son Jun-ho equalized five minutes later.

Go Moo-yul’s strike in the 74th-minute gave the Steelers the narrow win and a psychological edge at home next week with a spot in the quarterfinals at stake. Pohang is aiming for its sixth quarterfinals appearance in the continental championship, and a record fourth title.

In second-round matches in the western zone on Tuesday, Al Jazira takes on Al Ain and Al-Ittihad is against Al Shabab.