Urawa Reds stayed neck-and-neck with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the race for the J. League overall points title after a rip-roaring 4-3 win over FC Tokyo on Saturday.
Urawa, which went into the game trailing Sanfrecce only on goal difference at the top of the table, took an early two-goal lead through Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yuki Muto before Keigo Higashi pulled one back for Tokyo minutes later.
Further goals from Takahiro Sekine and Tomoaki Makino either side of halftime appeared to put Urawa in total control, but a double from Tokyo’s Hideto Takahashi set up a nervy finish in front of 38,952 at Ajinomoto Stadium.
“It was a very stressful game,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic, who had to be restrained from confronting the referee on the pitch after the final whistle.
“We worked hard and reacted to their changes well for the first 75 minutes. But when they scored their second goal, my players started to get nervous.
“In Japan you sometimes see teams throwing away 4-1 leads. In Germany the mentality is to go for a fifth goal and then a sixth, and that’s what I want to see from my team. If you are a boxer and your opponent is in trouble, you go for the knockout.”
Sanfrecce beat Ventforet Kofu 2-0 to keep their noses ahead of Urawa in the overall table — the winner of which goes directly to the championship-deciding game — with two games of the regular season remaining.
Tokyo stayed third in the overall table — good enough to earn a spot in the playoffs — but will be overtaken by fourth-place Gamba Osaka if the defending champions beat Vegalta Sendai on Sunday.
“We started badly and then it got worse,” said Tokyo manager Massimo Ficcadenti. “It was a fun game to watch, and I’m satisfied that at 4-1 down my players didn’t give up and we managed to claw our way back. We weren’t able to get the draw, but Urawa are a very good team.
“We still have two games left, and you never know what can happen.”
Urawa took an 11th-minute lead through a goalkeeping blunder when Tokyo’s Vlada Avramov palmed Tomoya Ugajin’s seemingly harmless cross down to the feet of Kashiwagi, who needed no second invitation to ram the ball home.
Tokyo’s plight worsened when Urawa doubled its lead just three minutes later, Muto curling in a shot from the edge of the box.
But the home side regained a foothold minutes later when Takuji Yonemoto filleted the Urawa defense with a pass through to Higashi, who shrugged off Makino’s tackle before firing past goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
Sekine restored Urawa’s two-goal cushion in the 27th minute, however, blasting home a loose ball after Tokyo had failed to clear the danger.
“In the first half we were playing the way we set out to,” said Sekine. “My goal came at a very important time for the team.”
Shinzo Koroki and Sekine both went close to extending Urawa’s lead early in the second half, but when the goal finally came, it was worth the wait. Zlatan Ljubijankic made space in a congested Tokyo penalty box with an exquisite flick, and Makino latched onto it to arrow the ball into the back of the net.
Takahashi gave Tokyo a glimmer of hope when he headed in Kosuke Ota’s cross in the 74th minute, and the midfielder set up a real grandstand finish when he bundled the ball over the line with seven minutes to play.
“We talked about being positive and making a strong start, and we did that today,” said Muto, who took his scoring tally to nine for the season. “We were combining well and creating a lot of chances.
“In the second half we let things slip, but the fact that we came away with the win is the important thing. If we can close out these kinds of games comfortably, we can move up another level as a team.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Kashima Antlers slipped three points behind Sanfrecce in the race for the second-stage title after a 2-1 loss to Shonan Bellmare.
Montedio Yamagata became the second team to drop through the relegation trapdoor — along with Shimizu S-Pulse — after a 3-1 loss to Vissel Kobe. Kazuma Watanabe scored a hat trick for Vissel, who confirmed their place in J1 next season.
Matsumoto Yamaga slipped closer to joining Montedio and S-Pulse in J2 after a 2-1 defeat to Sagan Tosu, although Albirex Niigata’s 4-2 loss to Nagoya Grampus gives Yamaga a stay of execution for at least another week.
In the day’s other game, Fabio scored to give Yokohama F. Marinos a 1-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale.
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