Kawasaki Frontale ended Kashima Antlers’ nine-match unbeaten run and cut the gap on the J. League leaders with an emphatic 3-1 win on Sunday.

Defending champion Kashima had won eight of nine games and drawn the other heading into the match at Todoroki Stadium, but a first-half own goal by Daigo Nishi and clinical strikes from Hiroyuki Abe and Akihiro Ienaga after the break gave Frontale a deserved victory, despite a late consolation from Yuma Suzuki.

First-place Antlers stayed two points clear of second-place Cerezo Osaka — who did not play on Sunday — but wins for Yokohama F. Marinos, Kashiwa Reysol and Frontale saw the gap between first and fifth shrink to four points.

“The players were really up for playing against the team at the top of the table,” said Kawasaki manager Toru Oniki, whose team stayed in fourth place but moved within four points of Antlers.

“We started with a determination not to let them beat us. We wanted to get the better of them in every department. We had chances to score in the first half that we couldn’t take, but we scored at a good time either side of halftime and that led to the win.”

Oniki was rewarded with a stand-out performance from Ienaga, who joined Frontale from Omiya Ardija over the winter but was making only his 10th league appearance of the season.

“In this situation, with us so many points behind Kashima, we knew that if we lost we would be a long way back,” said Oniki. “That put a lot of pressure on him (Ienaga) but it was precisely because of that I chose to play him. I was confident that he would do the business. He showed everyone his potential tonight.”

Frontale dominated the opening exchanges but failed to make the most of their supremacy, with Elsinho guilty of a glaring miss when he found himself free at the back post in the 20th minute.

Kengo Nakamura hit the crossbar as Frontale continued to create chances, and the home side finally made the breakthrough in first-half injury time. Ienaga played a low pass into the box that Abe cleverly dummied to set up to teammate Ryota Oshima, but Nishi slid in and turned the ball into his own net before the midfielder could pull the trigger.

“I didn’t touch it,” said Oshima. “Aki played the ball to Abe but I got the feeling it was going to run on. The Kashima defender came back and got there first but we knew that if we got bodies into the box we could score in those kind of situations.”

One minute after the interval, Frontale doubled their lead. Elsinho drilled the ball into Kyohei Noborizato, who laid it off with one touch for Abe to side-foot into the corner of the net with remarkable composure.

Substitute Hiroki Abe gave Kashima an attacking injection after coming off the bench shortly after the hour mark, but Ienaga put the result beyond doubt in the 72nd minute. The former Japan striker controlled the ball before cutting inside from the right, then uncorked a magnificent left-foot shot that gave goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata no chance.

“This is the first time I’ve started a game at Todoroki, that’s how little I’ve been playing,” said Ienaga. “I want to play and get a good long run on the pitch. But I won’t get to play if they team isn’t winning, and I’m glad we won tonight.”

An 87th-minute reply from Kashima substitute Yuma Suzuki arrived too late as Antlers suffered their first defeat under manager Go Oiwa, who took over from Masatada Ishii following a 3-0 loss to Frontale in Kashima on May 19.

“Kawasaki put us under a lot of pressure from the first half, and as the game went on their quality really came out,” said Oiwa, who played 165 league games for Kashima as a player before he retired in 2010.

“We scored at the end and kept looking for more goals, so I have to give the players credit for that. We needed to make some changes in the second half. The players were a little bit lost as to how to win the ball, and you need to be doing things well in a high-quality game like this.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Hugo Vieira scored in the ninth minute to give Marinos a 1-0 win over Sagan Tosu that took them three points behind Antlers, while Reysol stayed one further back alongside Frontale with a 4-1 thrashing of Shimizu S-Pulse.

Jubilo Iwata beat Gamba Osaka 2-0 to leapfrog their opponents into sixth place, substitute Peter Utaka scored in the 88th minute to give FC Tokyo a 1-0 win over Vissel Kobe, and Ataru Esaka was on target as Ardija beat Albirex Niigata 1-0.

Hiroaki Okuno scored the winner as Vegalta Sendai beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima, while in the day’s other game, Consadole Sapporo and Ventforet Kofu drew 1-1.

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