SAITAMA – Japan international Yuki Muto scored and assisted against his former club as Urawa Reds rolled to their third straight victory with a 3-1 win over Vegalta Sendai in the J. League second stage on Saturday.
Muto, one of the few bright spots for Japan’s failed East Asian Cup campaign earlier this month, netted the decisive second for Mihailo Petrovic’s first-stage winners and set up a late third for substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic.
Reds’ Yosuke Kashiwagi opened the scoring early before Ryang Yong-gi wiped out the lead midway through the first half for Sendai, who fell to its fifth defeat in six games.
Muto, who fled Sendai for the milk and honey at Saitama for 2015, has a team-high 10 goals this season for Urawa, now within touching distance of the two-stage sweep.
On 14 points from eight games, Reds closed within five points of the lead now held by Kashima Antlers, who thumped Montedio Yamagata 3-0 at home and are a perfect 5-for-5 since replacing manager Toninho Cerezo with Masatada Ishii.
Muto’s performance comes just in time for Thursday’s Japan squad announcement for the World Cup qualifiers at home to Cambodia and Afghanistan away on Sept. 3 and 8, respectively.
“I gained some confidence at the East Asian Cup and if I get picked again, I hope I can hold my own amongst the overseas-based players,” Muto said. “If I do get in, it’ll be because of my performances for Reds so I want to keep playing the way I have even for the national side.
“Scoring 10 goals was a target of mine for the season so it’s nice to reach that mark against Sendai.”
The two teams produced a goalfest when they met in the first stage in May, drawing 4-4 in Sendai, and the goals continued to flow from the opening half on Saturday.
In the 10th minute, Kashiwagi won a free kick just outside the “D,” forcing Kim Min-tae to foul on the break. Kashiwagi went on to hit the back of the net with grace, curling past the outstretched arms of Yuji Rokutan to give the hosts the lead.
Reds didn’t stay in front for long, however, as Vegalta leveled after 23 minutes through Ryang, who put the finishing touches on a well-executed counterattack by Hidetaka Kanazono.
Shinzo Koroki should have restored Urawa’s advantage two minutes past the hour with a completely free opportunity from the edge of the area, but made it too easy for Rokutan to come up with the save.
Kashiwagi followed, floating a header off the rebound but Rokutan scurried back to his line to make the catch.
Koroki, though, managed to atone for his embarrassing miss five minutes later, when he headed into Muto’s path from Kashiwagi’s ball into the box. Muto did well to barely get on the end of it, poking over Rokutan to put Reds up 2-1 before the intermission.
Sendai didn’t prove to be much of a threat to Urawa in the second half either, and Muto created his team’s third from the right corner with 15 minutes to go, Ljubijankic glancing in his seventh goal of the season just two minutes after being introduced to the game.
“We’ve been on a roll,” Muto said. “We wanted to keep winning and we’ve done that. I was happy with the way we broke them down for my goal, and I even managed to create one from a corner which almost never happens.
“A game against Sendai is always special for me. It’s who I became a professional footballer with and who raised me the last four years.”
In other J1 games, Sanfrecce Hiroshima moved one point off the pace after a 2-0 win at Albirex Niigata and Shonan Bellmare improved to 14 points with a 2-1 home win over Kawasaki Frontale.
Reigning champion Gamba Osaka edged Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0 at home while FC Tokyo and Grampus shared the points in a 0-0 draw in Nagoya. Elsewhere it was Ventforet Kofu 1, Vissel Kobe 0; Yokohama F. Marinos, 2, Sagan Tosu 1.
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