KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – Urawa Reds moved a step closer to winning their first J. League title in a decade after beating Kashima Antlers 1-0 in the first leg of the championship final on Tuesday.
Yuki Abe scored a 57th-minute penalty at Kashima Stadium after Daigo Nishi had fouled Shinzo Koroki in the box to give Urawa, which finished top of the overall league table a full 15 points ahead of third-place Kashima, a precious lead going into Saturday’s second leg.
Reds’ superior ranking means they can win their second league title even with a 1-0 defeat at Saitama Stadium, and pick up their second trophy of the season after capturing the League Cup last month.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” said Urawa captain Abe. “We have another game on Dec. 3, and if we don’t finish the job then this means nothing.
“You never know what is going to happen in football. We all have to put in the same effort as we did tonight, and I want to finish it off with a win at Saitama Stadium.”
The pivotal moment of a game that started with frantic intensity before settling into a cagey stalemate came 10 minutes into the second half, when referee Masaaki Iemoto pointed to the penalty spot after Koroki went down under the slightest of shoves from Nishi.
“That’s what battling with the defender is all about, and I feel that I won that one,” said Koroki, who joined Urawa from Kashima in 2012. “Of course this is a special place for me but it has been four years since I left and I don’t feel awkward playing here.”
Urawa’s Yuki Muto headed the ball into the Kashima net in the sixth minute only to see the linesman flagging for offside, and Reds continued to see plenty of the ball with the home side content to sit back and launch counterattacks.
But Urawa failed to capitalize on its early dominance and limped toward halftime with a Muto shot that was easily saved by Kashima goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata in the 44th minute the nearest the visitors came to scoring.
Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa bailed his team out five minutes after the restart when he denied Yasushi Endo from a one-on-one, but the breakthrough came just minutes later when Nishi felled Koroki and Abe buried his spot kick into the top right-hand corner.
“Koroki won us the penalty and I knew I had to put it away,” said Abe. “I knew that I could give my teammates a boost by scoring it. I hit it with confidence and I’m glad it went in.”
Mu Kanazaki headed straight at Nishikawa from a late corner as Antlers tried to salvage something to take into the second leg, but a Shoma Doi header that flashed past the post in injury time marked the end of the home side’s chances.
“We lost, and now we just have to get over it and prepare for the second leg,” said Kashima midfielder Ryota Nagaki. “We didn’t play badly and we had chances to score. We just have to make sure that we put those kind of chances away in the next game.
“We need to score two goals, and we just have to go for it. If everyone gets behind us, we can win the title.”
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