SAITAMA – Kashima Antlers kept themselves firmly in contention for the J. League first-stage title after a 2-0 away win over Urawa Reds on Saturday.
Mu Kanazaki and substitute Yuma Suzuki scored second-half goals at Saitama Stadium to leave Antlers one point behind leaders Kawasaki Frontale with two games of the first stage remaining.
Third-place Urawa is also still in the mix six points further back with two games in hand over both Frontale and Antlers, but a 1-0 loss for fourth-place Omiya Ardija against Albirex Niigata means the first stage is now officially a three-horse race.
“I was 100 percent confident I would score,” said Suzuki, who made the game safe for Kashima with an 88th-minute penalty. “I won the penalty myself so I wanted to take it.
“Playing in a great stadium like this with so many fans, there was no way we were going to lose. It sounds bad to say it, but no matter what, we were going to win.”
Frontale beat Yokohama F. Marinos 2-0 earlier in the day to keep their noses ahead of Antlers, but Kashima manager Masatada Ishii believes his team passed a stiff test in beating Urawa.
“We knew it would be a tough game,” said Ishii. “Reds have a strong attack and their defense has been getting better and better each year.
“We were getting pushed back in the first half and couldn’t find any penetration, passing the ball from side to side. But in the second half we started to put some pressure on them from the front, and although we were pushed back too far after we scored the opener, the substitutes allowed us to get back onto the front foot.”
A feisty first half began with Antlers almost making an instant impact, as Mitsuo Ogasawara flashed a free kick narrowly over the bar in the second minute after Shoma Doi had been fouled on the very edge of the box.
Kashima continued to cause the home side problems and Yasushi Endo should have done better when Kanazaki’s shot rebounded back off the post and into his path in the 40th minute, only for the midfielder to screw the ball wide.
The woodwork denied Kanazaki again when he headed against the inside of the post with the last touch of the first half, but there was no stopping the 27-year-old when he opened the scoring seven minutes after the restart.
Gaku Shibasaki found space on the right before sending a cross to the back post, and Kanazaki timed his run to dispatch the ball into the back of the net.
The goal belatedly stung Urawa into action, and Tomoaki Makino almost got onto the end of a Yosuke Kashiwagi free kick before substitute Yoshiaki Komai curled a shot against the Kashima crossbar.
“I had a chance and didn’t take it, which is very frustrating,” said Komai. “I got a good pass and hit the ball well. I thought it was going in but it wasn’t to be.”
Instead it was Komai’s foul on Suzuki that handed the Kashima substitute the chance from the penalty spot, and Suzuki sent goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa the wrong way to seal a crucial three points for the away team.
“Both teams played well with a high tempo,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “Somebody had to win and it’s a pity it wasn’t us.
“It was an important game. Our buildup was good. We were getting the through-balls through but we failed with the final passes and the accuracy of the finishing. The biggest difference today was probably the individual skills of their front three.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Gamba Osaka and Shonan Bellmare traded punches before settling for a 3-3 draw, while Australian Billy Celeski scored as Ventforet Kofu beat Avispa Fukuoka 1-0.
Yohei Toyoda struck in the sixth minute to give Sagan Tosu a 1-0 win over Nagoya Grampus, FC Tokyo and Jubilo Iwata played out a 0-0 draw, and Vissel Kobe and Sanfrecce Hiroshima drew 1-1.
In the day’s other game, Vegalta Sendai beat Kashiwa Reysol 2-0.