SAITAMA – Urawa Reds drew 1-1 with Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday to give Sanfrecce Hiroshima one hand on the J. League overall points title with one game of the regular season remaining.
Shinzo Koroki scored in the 28th minute at Saitama Stadium to give Reds — who began the day level on points with league-leaders Sanfrecce but with a goal difference 10 goals inferior — hope of claiming the direct ticket to the championship game that comes with finishing top of the league.
But a Frontale equalizer from Kentaro Moriya a minute before halftime — coupled with a 2-0 win for Sanfrecce over Gamba Osaka — left Urawa facing the prospect of a playoff against the league’s third-place team — currently FC Tokyo — for the right to play Sanfrecce in the final.
“We started to run out of steam in the second half, and when that happened we had trouble keeping the ball,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “Both teams had chances to win it right until the end, and I think a draw was a fair result.
“The ideal thing would have been for us to put the game away in the first half and go into halftime 3-0 ahead. But this was not the kind of team that you can do that against.”
Sanfrecce play Shonan Bellmare at home in their final regular-season game essentially needing only a point to clinch first place, while Reds entertain Vissel Kobe.
The playoffs will now almost certainly feature only three teams, after Sanfrecce as good as clinched the second-stage title with their win over Gamba. Kashima Antlers beat Yokohama F. Marinos 2-0 to stay three points behind Sanfrecce in the second-stage table, but with a goal difference 12 goals inferior.
Tokyo beat Kashiwa Reysol 1-0 to move into third place in the overall table, two points ahead of Gamba. As things stand, Reds will host Tokyo at Saitama Stadium in a one-off playoff on Nov. 28, with the winner facing Sanfrecce in a two-legged final on Dec. 2 and 5.
“It wasn’t bad,” said Urawa forward Tsukasa Umesaki. “Of course it would have been good to get the three points and go for the overall points title. But we’re playing well, and this is a good time of year to be playing well.”
Urawa started strongly against a Frontale side missing suspended league top-scorer Yoshito Okubo, and it was little surprise when Koroki gave the home side the lead. The striker found himself racing against defender Shogo Taniguchi to reach a pass with goalkeeper Shota Arai charging toward them, but Koroki kept his cool to chip the ball over Arai’s head.
Just as Reds looked set to go into halftime with their noses in front, however, Frontale hit back with a spectacular equalizer. Moriya received the ball and turned Tomoaki Makino in one movement, then lashed a shot past goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa from outside the box with his next touch.
Frontale began to enjoy more possession as the game wore on, however, and although Umesaki hit the crossbar in the 83rd minute, Kyohei Noborizato almost won it for the visitors after a break forward in the 90th minute.
“We knew we had to put pressure on them,” said Frontale manager Yahiro Kazama. “The players did very well and we had chances to win the game. We practice 1-on-1 in training — maybe we should start practicing 3-on-1 as well.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Matsumoto Yamaga joined Montedio Yamagata and Shimizu S-Pulse through the relegation trapdoor after a 2-1 defeat to Vissel. The result meant Albirex Niigata retained their first-division status despite a 2-0 loss to Shonan Bellmare.
In the day’s other games, a Yohei Toyoda goal gave Sagan Tosu a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai, S-Pulse beat Montedio 2-1, and Nagoya Grampus downed Ventforet Kofu 4-2.
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