OSAKA – The Kashima Antlers continued to pad their lead in the J. League on Saturday as the defending champions seized a 1-0 victory in a top-of-the-table clash with Cerezo Osaka.
Leandro struck in the nick of time at Yanmar Stadium, scoring an 88th-minute goal from a right-wing Mu Kanazaki cross to hand the Antlers all three points.
Kashima, on 52 points from 24 games, opened up a five-point gap on the second-place Yokohama F. Marinos, who stretched their unbeaten run to 14 league games after a 1-0 home win against FC Tokyo.
“We talked before the game about how this was going to be the most important match of the season, very key,” said Leandro, who will be suspended for Antlers’ next match against Omiya Ardija following the international break after drawing a yellow in injury time. “We played with great team spirit tonight.”
“It was a brilliant cross (from Kanazaki). I knew this was the only chance I had, and I’m glad I was able to take it.”
Cerezo stood on 45 points with their third defeat in the last five games and could drop to fifth depending on Sunday’s result between Kawasaki Frontale and Ventforet Kofu.
Cerezo coach Yoon Jong-hwan felt his team deserved a point from the contest.
“We played them more than evenly so it’s a little disappointing not to come away with the result,” Yoon said. “We have to regroup and continue to play the way we have been.”
Kashima managed to exact revenge for its loss to Cerezo at home in April when it was still under previous manager Masatada Ishii.
A loss on Saturday would have allowed Cerezo to close the gap with Go Oiwa’s men to a single point, but the visitors instead put seven points on Yoon’s side with 10 games left in the season.
“I’m proud of the boys, the way they persevered and fought,” Oiwa said. “I thought they turned in a brilliant performance. But the season goes on. We need to make sure we stay on our toes.”
In other J1 games, Lukas Podolski struck for the first time in five games but Vissel Kobe still came out on the losing end, 2-1 away to Jubilo Iwata.
Third-place Kashiwa Reysol (46 points) were held to a crippling 1-1 home draw to dead-last Albirex Niigata after Shinnosuke Nakatani was sent off in the first half, while Ardija drew 1-1 with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in Omiya in a matchup of two relegation-threatened teams.
Gamba Osaka beat Sagan Tosu 3-1 away, and Consadole edged Vegalta Sendai 1-0 in Sapporo.