YOKOHAMA - Kashima Antlers saw their stranglehold on the J. League title race loosen after a 3-2 defeat to Yokohama F. Marinos on Saturday night.
Antlers went into the match at Nissan Stadium with their five-point lead at the top of the table having been cut to two after second-place Kawasaki Frontale beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-0 earlier in the day, and two early goals from Marinos put the defending champions into an early hole.
A goal on the stroke of halftime from Shuto Yamamoto dragged Kashima back in contention, and normal service looked to have been resumed when Naomichi Ueda headed in an equalizer in the 66th minute.
But Marinos retook the lead when substitute Keita Endo scored in the 74th minute, leaving Antlers with a slender two-point lead over Frontale with four games of the season remaining.
“The two early goals we conceded really hurt us, and although we managed to get back on level terms it’s disappointing that we ended up with nothing,” said Kashima manager Go Oiwa. “We didn’t talk about Frontale’s result before the game. It was very important to concentrate on our own match, and we just wanted to focus on what we were doing.
“The goals we conceded came from our mistakes, so that is something we just have to fix ourselves. We’ll get ready for the next game and make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.”
Kashima’s defense was culpable for all three of Marinos’ goals, with Sho Ito heading home from a corner, Ueda gifting Jun Amano Yokohama’s second, and captain Gen Shoji turning Endo’s shot into his own net for the third.
“We need to all get together and sort it out,” said Shoji. “But when you lose a game like this, it’s pointless trying to point the finger of blame. Today it was Nao’s (Ueda) mistake so it was his fault — it’s not like that at all. It’s up to us as a team not to let in goals like that.”
The game was only three minutes old when Ito rose unchallenged to head in a corner from Amano, and 11 minutes later the home side doubled its lead.
Ueda dallied horribly as he received the ball on the edge of his own box, and Amano picked his pocket before calmly sliding the ball past goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata.
“After that goal, we had to think about whether to go all-out for an equalizer or take a breather,” said Kashima defender Daigo Nishi.
Antlers had several chances to claw their way back into the game before halftime and finally took one just seconds before the whistle. Marinos failed to clear their lines from a corner, and Yamamoto pounced to slam home from close range.
Antlers came out for the second half with renewed purpose and got their reward when Ueda thumped home a powerful header from a corner.
But Marinos retook the lead when Endo charged at the Antlers defense before letting fly with a shot that Shoji somehow contrived to bundle into his own net.
Marinos goalkeeper Hiroki Iikura brilliantly tipped a Leo Silva shot onto the crossbar as Antlers went in search of another equalizer, but the league leaders could not repeat the trick despite sending Sogahata up for an injury-time corner.
The win moved Marinos into third place — good enough for a place in next season’s Asian Champions League — one point ahead of Kashiwa Reysol after the Chiba side drew 1-1 with Omiya Ardija.
“It was important,” said Marinos defender Milos Degenek. “We’re now third, we’re one point ahead of fourth and fifth and we play Jubilo (Iwata) on Sunday (Oct. 29). We need to continue our winning ways so that we stay in the top three.”
In the day’s other games, English striker Jay Bothroyd scored twice as Consadole Sapporo took a huge step toward first-division survival with a 2-1 win over FC Tokyo, but Ventforet Kofu remain in trouble one point above the drop zone after losing 2-0 to Cerezo Osaka.
Bottom side Albirex Niigata drew 2-2 with Jubilo to leave at least a mathematical — but highly improbable — chance of staying up, while second-bottom Ardija salvaged a potentially crucial point with a 93rd-minute equalizer against Reysol.
In the day’s other games, Vegalta Sendai drew 0-0 with Shimizu S-Pulse, and Sagan Tosu beat Vissel Kobe 2-1.