Substitute Kazuya Murata injected dramatic new life into Shimizu S-Pulse’s J1 survival bid with a 90th-minute goal to seal a 3-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Sunday.
S-Pulse — who have been ever present in the top flight since the J. League began in 1993 — went into the game at Todoroki Stadium third from bottom having taken only seven points from their previous 10 matches, and the odds seemed further stacked against them when Akito Fukumori gave Frontale the lead in the 19th minute.
Mitsunari Musaka drew S-Pulse level before Yu Kobayashi restored Frontale’s lead going into halftime, but the visitors again hit back five minutes into the second half as Yutaka Yoshida notched a second equalizer.
An injury that forced Frontale playmaker Kengo Nakamura out of the game in the 65th minute hurt the home side further, and S-Pulse took full advantage as Murata struck at the death to lift his team two points clear of the relegation zone with three games of the season remaining.
“No one was giving up on the win today,” said the 26-year-old Murata. “We weren’t thinking about leaving here with anything other than three points.
“I missed a chance before that, but I knew another one would come along. I’m glad that I could take that one chance when it came my way.”
S-Pulse and Ventforet Kofu were the big winners in the survival battle on a day that saw Cerezo Osaka and Omiya Ardija sink closer to the relegation trapdoor. Cerezo are now four points adrift after throwing away a lead to crash 3-1 at home to Ventforet, while Omiya conceded a late equalizer to draw 1-1 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and now trail S-Pulse by two points.
“Frontale are a strong team who keep the ball well, but our aim was to defend as a team,” said S-Pulse manager Katsumi Oenoki, who took over in July after predecessor Afshin Ghotbi was fired.
“We knew they would tire in the second half, so we tried to make them work and use the space. We settled after the second equalizer but we couldn’t score another until Murata got his goal. These three points are huge for us.”
The result all but eliminated Frontale from the title race, having begun the day in fourth place, seven points behind league-leaders Urawa Reds. Reds, who play Yokohama F. Marinos on Monday, saw their lead at the top cut to two points after Gamba Osaka drew 1-1 with Vegalta Sendai, while Kashima Antlers moved four off the pace after beating Albirex Niigata 2-1.
“It’s disappointing, but it was a fair result,” said Frontale striker Yoshito Okubo. “Our rhythm was off and we just couldn’t do anything in front of goal. Kengo going off hurt us, but that kind of thing happens and you just have to deal with it.
“Our problem is one of confidence. We just have to believe in what we have been doing and have confidence.”
S-Pulse began the match brightly but soon found themselves pinned back in their own half, and it was no surprise when Frontale opened the scoring. Nakamura played a corner to the near post, and Fukumori met it with a firm header to notch the first goal of his J. League career.
S-Pulse stuck to the task and the visitors got their reward with the equalizer in the 40th minute. Ryo Takeuchi fizzed a low pass into the center, and Musaka swept it home with a first-time shot past goalkeeper Rikihiro Sugiyama.
The Shimizu revival, however, did not last long. Kobayashi restored Frontale’s lead on the stroke of halftime, cleverly dummying a pass from Takanobu Komiyama before taking the return ball from Nakamura and dispatching a shot into the far corner.
But S-Pulse shook off the disappointment and leveled the score again just five minutes after the restart. Yoshida broke clear to face Sugiyama one-on-one, and it was the S-Pulse man who emerged with the ball before tucking it home after the ‘keeper had saved his initial effort.
Musaka almost put S-Pulse in front as Frontale struggled to contain the visitors with Nakamura now substituted. But Murata would have the final word with the winning goal, racing forward down the right before calmly slotting the ball past Sugiyama and sparking wild scenes among the visiting fans.
“He gives his all every day in training, and he’s always working hard to improve himself,” Oenoki said of Murata, who scored his third goal of the season. “He reminds me of (former S-Pulse striker) Shinji Okazaki in that respect. He’s very popular and he’s a mood-maker in the dressing room. Maybe I should stop before I praise him too much.”
In the day’s other games, Sagan Tosu beat Vissel Kobe 2-1 to move up to fourth place, Kashiwa Reysol beat already-relegated Tokushima Vortis 2-0, and FC Tokyo drew 2-2 with Nagoya Grampus.