Shoma Doi scored in the 79th minute as Kashima Antlers finally broke down Omiya Ardija’s stubborn resistance to claim a 1-0 win in the J. League on Saturday.

Ardija went into the match at Nack 5 Stadium searching for their first points of the season after losing their opening four games, and Hiroki Shibuya’s side looked to have done enough to claim a draw after frustrating the defending champions on a chilly night in Saitama.

But Kashima’s persistence paid off when Doi slotted the ball past substitute goalkeeper Hitoshi Shiota to give the visitors all three points, sending them level on points with Vissel Kobe at the top of the table after five games of the season.

“We had the ball from start to finish, and if we had scored earlier I think it would have been a more straightforward game for us,” said Doi, who scored his first goal of the season. “That’s something for us to think about.

“We’re still playing in the Asian Champions League and every game that comes along is must-win for us. It’s important to keep this run going. We want to keep winning in both competitions.”

Omiya looked capable of holding Kashima goalless until goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato left the game injured in the 67th minute following a collision with teammate Ryo Okui, but Shibuya refused to be despondent despite his team’s dismal start to the season.

“That’s the fifth game we’ve lost, and we didn’t manage to score either,” said Shibuya. “It’s disappointing, and I have to apologize. The fans are feeling different emotions and it’s only natural that they will criticize us. We need to take that on board and use it to help us win.

“The players are working hard in training and today we tried to keep it tight in defense first of all, and then try to build attacks. I don’t think Antlers really pulled us around so much. The fact that we managed to hold a team with so much attacking power for so long is something we can build on.”

Antlers went into the match missing star striker Mu Kanazaki through injury, but the champions soon showed that they still had plenty of attacking options. Doi tried his luck with a couple of early attempts at goal, before Yasushi Endo lifted a shot just over the bar after a turbo-charged run through the heart of the Omiya defense by Pedro Junior.

Kato almost fumbled the ball over his own goal line in the 37th minute, and the goalkeeper suffered more misfortune when he crashed into Okui midway through the second half and left the field on a stretcher.

Naomichi Ueda failed to test replacement Shiota when he blasted a free kick harmlessly over the bar, although Doi at least forced the goalkeeper to make a save when he shot from inside the box minutes later.

But Antlers finally made the breakthrough 11 minutes from time when Yuma Suzuki slipped the ball through to Doi on the left, and this time the 24-year-old made no mistake, guiding the ball past Shiota into the corner of the net.

“We won the ball in a good position and I ran into space confident that it would come to me,” said Doi. “I think the ‘keeper got a touch, but thankfully it went in. It’s not very often that Yuma provides the assist for me, but that’s what got us the three points at the end of the day.”

Omiya had several chances to equalize in a frantic end to the match, but Antlers held firm to claim their fourth straight league win, having lost to FC Tokyo on the opening day of the season.

“Omiya had lost their last four games but we knew that they would be ready for us and very highly motivated,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii. “We started well and created chances but couldn’t score from them, and that made things difficult for us.

“But I knew that if we could just score one goal, it would settle us down. Omiya threw the kitchen sink at us at the end but we kept our concentration and I think this win was well deserved.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Urawa Reds beat Vissel 3-1 to end Kobe’s perfect start to the season.

Gamba Osaka preserved their unbeaten record — the only one left in the first division — with a 3-2 win over Albirex Niigata, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima are still looking for their first victory after a 2-0 home defeat to Kashiwa Reysol.

Jubilo Iwata claimed local bragging rights with a 3-1 win over Shimizu S-Pulse in the Shizuoka derby, Tatsuya Hasegawa and Kentaro Moriya both hit the target as Kawasaki Frontale beat Vegalta Sendai 2-0, and Cerezo Osaka notched a 2-0 victory over Yokohama F. Marinos.

In the day’s other game, FC Tokyo striker Peter Utaka came off the bench to score twice but Sagan Tosu grabbed two goals in the final two minutes to earn a point in a wild 3-3 draw at Ajinomoto Stadium.

Ventforet Kofu are at home to Consadole Sapporo in Sunday’s only game.

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