Urawa Reds cut Kawasaki Frontale’s lead at the top of the overall J. League table to two points after coming from behind to beat FC Tokyo 3-1 on Saturday.
Frontale, kicking off one hour before Urawa took on Tokyo, conceded an 89th-minute goal to lose their game against Omiya Ardija 3-2, but Urawa looked incapable of taking advantage when Masato Morishige gave Tokyo a 48th-minute lead from the penalty spot at Ajinomoto Stadium.
But Urawa’s persistence paid off when substitute Tadanari Lee headed home an equalizer in the 77th minute, before a Keigo Higashi own goal put the visitors in front seven minutes later and Shinzo Koroki added another before full-time.
“We got to halftime at 0-0 and maybe the players thought that was OK,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “Then as soon as the second half started, we conceded. That’s what happens when you play with that mentality.
“Urawa Reds are a team that always has to win. You can’t be satisfied with a draw. Maybe conceding so early in the second half was good for us because it woke the players up and forced them to take risks.”
Ataru Esaka consigned Frontale to their third defeat in five league games when he pounced at the death for Omiya in a game that the league leaders had been winning 2-1 until Akihiro Ienaga scored an equalizer in the 84th minute.
Urawa leapfrogged Frontale into first place in the second-stage table with the victory, although a top-three finish in the overall table outranks stage wins in the championship playoffs.
“A striker has to score goals and I’m glad that I could contribute today,” said Lee, who came off the bench at halftime to score his 10th goal of the season. “We have to aim to finish on top of the overall table.
“If you want to be No. 1 in Japan, you have to have strong competition for places in the team. The No. 1 team in Japan should be the team that is playing at the highest level.”
Ryoichi Maeda should have given Tokyo the lead in the seventh minute, only to miscontrol the ball when he found himself in front of goal. But chances were few and far between in a first half peppered with hefty tackles and frequent stoppages.
“In the first half we couldn’t play our game,” said Petrovic. “I think the players were maybe a little nervous going into such an important match.”
Tokyo seized its opportunity when it came just minutes after the restart. Yuki Abe tripped Shoya Nakajima as the forward surged into the box, and Morishige sent his penalty high down the middle beyond the reach of the already-committed Shusaku Nishikawa.
“I was confident we would score after that,” said Nishikawa. “But we had to make sure that they they didn’t score again. I think our experience paid off today.”
Lee wasted the chance to bring Urawa level when he blasted over from close range, before Yosuke Kashiwagi hit the crossbar with a dipping effort that deceived Tokyo goalkeeper Yota Akimoto.
Urawa striker Zlatan Ljubijankic also hit the woodwork in the 70th minute, but the visitors finally made the breakthrough seven minutes later when Lee met Sekine’s cross from the left with a firm header past Akimoto.
Urawa then took the lead in the 85th minute when the rebound from a Ljubijankic shot cannoned off Higashi into his own net, and substitute Koroki made the result safe with a header two minutes later.
“It wouldn’t have been a surprise if we had ended up scoring four or five,” said Petrovic. “When we score one, I want the players to want to score two. Then when we score two, I want the players to score three and four and five. They showed that desire tonight.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Kashima Antlers strengthened their grip on third place in the overall table, five points behind Urawa, with a 3-0 win over Jubilo Iwata.
Gamba Osaka stayed six points further back in fourth after a 3-1 win over Nagoya Grampus, but also moved second in the second-stage table, two points behind Urawa.
Vissel Kobe and Kashiwa Reysol’s hopes of reaching the playoffs by winning the second stage took a hit as both teams canceled each other out in a 1-1 draw, and Sagan Tosu also lost ground after a 3-2 defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Yokohama F. Marinos, meanwhile, moved up to fourth in the second-stage table after a 3-1 win over Albirex Niigata.
At the other end of the table, Avispa Fukuoka beat fellow strugglers Shonan Bellmare 2-0, and Ventforet Kofu drew 1-1 at home to Vegalta Sendai.
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