KAWASAKI – Yu Kobayashi scored a late double as 10-man Kawasaki Frontale kept their J. League title hopes alive with a stunning 3-2 win over Vegalta Sendai on Saturday.
Frontale went into the game at Todoroki Stadium trailing league leaders Kashima Antlers by five points with six matches to play, and looked to be dead and buried when Akihiro Ienaga was sent off late in the first half and goals from Gakuto Notsuda and Naoki Ishihara put Vegalta two goals ahead after an hour’s play.
But Elsinho started Frontale’s comeback in the 82nd minute before Kobayashi scored an equalizer two minutes later, and the striker sealed an incredible turnaround when he notched the winner three minutes from time to keep Kawasaki in contention for a first-ever title.
“I thought it was going to be tough when we went 2-0 down, but Elsinho’s goal gave the team hope and stirred up the crowd and at that moment I thought we had a chance,” said Kobayashi, who scored his 16th and 17th goals of the season.
“It was a really important game and I don’t know why we had that kind of first half. Football is a difficult game and nothing comes easy. But that just makes this win all the more important. We never gave up until the end.”
Antlers beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-0 with goals from Shoma Doi and Yuma Suzuki to maintain their five-point lead over Frontale heading into the final five games of the season.
But Kawasaki manager Toru Oniki believes the way his players reacted to Ienaga’s red card means no one should be writing them off just yet.
“The players perfectly understood my instructions how to attack and defend with 10 men — the second half proved that,” said Oniki. “The way we played after the sending off made it seem like we didn’t even have a man less on the pitch.
“At halftime I told the players that even though we were a goal down and had 10 men, if anything happened our opponents would panic. I told them that we would definitely get chances, so don’t give up. When you’re in the middle of a scramble like that, the mental side of it is the most important thing. This season our strength has been that we never give up.”
Ienaga was booked for diving in the Vegalta box midway through the first half and saw yellow again when he clattered into Hiroaki Okuno from behind in the 42nd minute.
“It was no coincidence that they had a man sent off,” said Vegalta manager Susumu Watanabe. “That happened because of the way we were playing.”
Notsuda gave the visitors the lead with the last kick of the first half, tapping in Yoshihiro Nakano’s cross from close range to send the teams down the tunnel to a chorus of boos from an incensed home crowd.
Ishihara then struck in the 60th minute to dig the home side into an even deeper hole. Koji Hachisuka swung a deep cross into the Frontale box, and Ishikawa beat Tatsuki Nara to head the ball back across goal and into the bottom corner of the net.
“In our previous game, they had a man sent off but we panicked and were eliminated,” said Watanabe, referring to the second leg of the J. League Cup semifinal between the same two teams last week, which Frontale won despite having Nara sent off in the 52nd minute.
“At halftime today, I told the players not to panic. Just pass the ball around and attack. But you have to try to score a goal. Instead we were just passing the ball from side to side, and that was naive of us.”
Elsinho raised Frontale’s hopes when he pulled a goal back with a curling shot from outside the box in the 82nd minute, and Kobayashi set up a dramatic finale when he slammed home an equalizer two minutes later.
“I always practice hitting shots like that with my left foot in training,” said Elsinho. “I don’t know who the pass came from, but it came to me just as it does in training and I was able to picture what I wanted to do as I hit it.”
Kobayashi then rescued the day for his team with three minutes remaining, cutting in from the left and unleashing a right-foot shot from the edge of the box that left goalkeeper Kentaro Seki with no chance.
“At that point I was so fired up I could hardly dribble the ball,” said Kobayashi. “I just thought ‘hit it.’ “
Elsewhere in the J. League, third-place Kashiwa Reysol dropped six points behind Frontale after a 3-0 defeat to Consadole Sapporo, fourth-place Yokohama F. Marinos drew 1-1 with Omiya Ardija, and Jubilo Iwata moved up to fifth after a 3-0 thrashing of local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse.
Rock-bottom Albirex Niigata picked up only their third win of the season, 1-0 over Gamba Osaka, while Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe drew 1-1.