SAITAMA – Urawa Reds moved a step closer to the J. League overall points title despite squandering a lead in a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu on Saturday.
Urawa began the day two points ahead of Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the overall table — the winner of which goes directly to the J. League championship decider — and looked on course for another three points when Shinzo Koroki opened the scoring in the 23rd minute.
But Yutaka Yoshida equalized eight minutes later to ensure that Urawa would enjoy anything but a comfortable afternoon at Saitama Stadium, and the home side ended the match indebted to goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa as Tosu threatened to plunder a late winner.
Sanfrecce’s superior goal difference would have seen them take over at the top with a win over FC Tokyo later in the evening, but a 1-0 win for third-place Tokyo now leaves Reds three points clear at the top with four games of the regular season remaining.
“We knew that Tosu would defend in numbers and that it would be difficult to break them down, but even though we conceded, we didn’t fall apart,” said Nishikawa.
“We had chances to score and the fact that we didn’t take them is something that we have to work on. The important thing is that we didn’t lose. We still have four games left, and now we have to get down to training and get ready for them.”
Substitute Ryota Hayasaka almost put Tosu ahead late in the second half only for Nishikawa to deny him in a one-on-one duel, and visiting manager Hitoshi Morishita was disappointed that his 14th-placed side could not go on to pull off an unlikely win.
“Honestly, the way we played today, we wanted to win the game,” said Morishita. “We defended the way Sagan Tosu do, but we were also brave in attack and we managed to express ourselves. If we are able to play that way here, that is something positive that we can take from the game.”
Reds controlled the match from the kickoff, and it was little surprise when Koroki broke the deadlock midway through the first half. Yosuke Kashiwagi hit a corner deep to Yuki Muto at the back post, and when Tosu goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi parried his shot, Koroki was on hand to bury the rebound.
Less than 10 minutes later, Tosu equalized against the run of play. Yoshida darted into the box before hitting a shot that spun up off Nishikawa, and the home side could do nothing but watch in horror as the ball bounced into the back of the net.
“We knew that we wouldn’t get many chances to score today,” said Yoshida. “I wasn’t able to trap the ball the way I wanted to, but I hit it with everything I had.”
Tsukasa Umesaki and Tomoaki Makino both went close to restoring Urawa’s advantage before the interval. But when Reds midfielder Tomoya Ugajin clattered into manager Mihailo Petrovic on the touchline early in the second half — sending him sprawling to the turf — it was clear that things were no longer going the home side’s way.
Sagan were playing with far greater ambition and fluency, and Nishikawa had to come to Urawa’s rescue against Hayasaka in the 76th minute.
Hayasaka missed another chance to snatch all three points when Tomotaka Okamoto rolled the ball to him across the face of goal in the 86th minute, but Muto also glanced a header against the crossbar in injury time as both sides ended the game looking for the victory.
“We were determined to win today, and I can’t fault my players for their attitude,” said Petrovic. “It was just the last pass and the accuracy that were missing today.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Kashima Antlers stayed hot on Sanfrecce’s heels in the race for the second-stage title with a 2-0 win over Vissel Kobe. Antlers now trail Sanfrecce only on goal difference in the second-stage table.
Relegation-threatened Montedio Yamagata made a late push for survival with a 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare, but Shimizu S-Pulse slipped closer to the J1 exit after a 1-0 loss to Matsumoto Yamaga.
Shunsuke Nakamura scored a trademark free kick in Yokohama F. Marinos’ 3-1 win over Vegalta Sendai, Ventforet Kofu and Albirex Niigata drew 0-0, while Masato Kudo scored twice as Kashiwa Reysol beat Nagoya Grampus 3-1.
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