SAITAMA – Urawa Reds moved top of the overall J. League table and exorcized a few demons along the way with a 4-0 win over Gamba Osaka on Saturday.
Reds, who had lost their last four games against Gamba, took a sixth-minute lead at Saitama Stadium through Toshiyuki Takagi before Yuki Muto doubled their lead five minutes into the second half.
Tomoya Ugajin and substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic then added late goals to complete a comfortable afternoon for Urawa, which moved one point ahead of Kawasaki Frontale in the overall table and then stayed there when Frontale lost 3-0 to Vissel Kobe later in the day.
“Urawa vs. Gamba is something like a national derby,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic, whose team lost to Gamba in last season’s J. League playoffs and Emperor’s Cup final.
“We had lost our last four games in a row against them so we knew it would be difficult. Among those four defeats have been games that we could have won, but to lose four in a row really did leave a negative mark on us.
“We have lost games recently after conceding goals on the counterattack, and that is something that we addressed in training. The most important thing today was for the players to be disciplined, and they were.”
Both Reds and Frontale clinched their places in the playoffs the previous weekend, but both are still battling to claim the direct berth in the Championship final that comes with finishing top of the overall table.
Frontale lost their grip on top spot with three games remaining, after a goal from Kazuma Watanabe and a Leandro double gave Vissel a win which moved Kobe second in the second-stage table, five points behind leaders Urawa.
“It would have meant nothing if we hadn’t won today,” Urawa captain Yuki Abe said after being congratulated on making his 500th J. League appearance.
“I’ve played good games against Gamba before when we haven’t ended up getting the result, so we had to win today. Everyone has been congratulating me but really that’s just a bonus. The thing that makes me happy is that the team won.”
Urawa got off to the perfect start when Takagi opened the scoring in the sixth minute, calmly slotting the ball home from inside the six-yard box after a low cross from Muto.
Yoshiaki Komai slalomed through the Gamba defense before hitting a shot at Masaaki Higashiguchi in the 33rd minute, before the ‘keeper denied the same player again from a free kick minutes later.
“We tried to keep our concentration from the start and not make any mistakes, but they gave us a lot of space and freedom,” said Komai.
Muto doubled Urawa’s lead five minutes into the second half, unleashing a left-foot screamer from the edge of the box that took a rebound off Takaharu Nishino on its way into the net.
Gamba’s task then became even harder when forward Ademilson was shown a straight red card for lashing out at Tomoaki Makino, before Ugajin made it three with a clinical back-post finish in the 83rd minute and Ljubijankic added another with a sharp turn and shot.
“We used all the frustration from those defeats by Gamba against them today,” said Makino. “But it wasn’t just for us players. The fans will have enjoyed this one even more.”
Gamba went into the game with realistic ambitions of booking a place in the playoffs by winning the second stage, but defeat left Kenta Hasegawa’s side seven points behind Urawa with only three games to play.
“It’s a frustrating result,” said Hasegawa, whose team was beaten by Sanfrecce Hiroshima in last season’s Championship final. “We knew that if we didn’t win today, things would be very difficult for us. It was a tough game but the players kept going until the final whistle and I appreciate their efforts.
“It looks pretty difficult to get into the playoffs now but we also have cup games still to play, and as long as there are games left we will keep going.”
Elsewhere in the J. League, Omiya Ardija beat Kashima Antlers 3-1 to give the teams chasing third place in the overall table a glimmer of hope.
Nagoya Grampus moved a step closer to first-division survival with a 5-0 win over Avispa Fukuoka. The result relegated Avispa, one season after they were promoted through the second-division playoffs.
Shonan Bellmare survived for another day after claiming a 0-0 draw with Kashiwa Reysol, and Albirex Niigata moved further away from the drop zone with a 2-1 win over Jubilo Iwata.
Ventforet Kofu slipped into the bottom three after losing 4-0 to Yokohama F. Marinos, Ramon Lopes scored a hat trick as Vegalta Sendai beat Sagan Tosu 3-2, and in the day’s other game, FC Tokyo beat Sanfrecce 1-0.