Soccer / J. League

Frontale keep title hopes alive

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kawasaki Frontale defender Elsinho scored in the 82nd minute to keep the J. League title race alive for at least another round with a 1-0 win over Gamba Osaka on Saturday.

Frontale went into the game at Todoroki Stadium knowing that a loss to Gamba would hand league leaders Kashima Antlers the title, but instead Elsinho pounced on a loose ball from a corner to cut the gap to four points with two games of the season remaining.

Antlers, who did not play on Saturday, can still clinch the title for a record ninth time if they beat Kashiwa Reysol at home on Nov. 26.

But Frontale manager Toru Oniki is confident that Frontale will be ready to take advantage of any slip-ups, after watching his players miss chance after chance against Gamba but still keep coming back to get the win.

“The biggest thing is that the players were under pressure but still managed to win,” said Oniki. “We played in a positive way but couldn’t manage to score from our chances. It was a difficult game, but then we have fought like that all season. Eventually the goal came from a set piece, and the players’ hard work and desire to win paid off in the end.”

Frontale were playing their first game since losing 2-0 to Cerezo Osaka in the final of the Levain Cup on Nov. 4, leaving the club still waiting to claim its first major trophy.

“Of course the players were in a bad way after losing in the Levain Cup,” said Oniki. “Although they were giving their all in training, there was no big excitement. But as soon as we came into this week, we talked about what we had done so far, and that there was still a chance for a miracle. Then two or three days before the game, they flicked a switch and got ready for the game.”

Frontale looked certain to take the lead in the 15th minute when Kengo Nakamura ghosted through the Gamba defense to latch onto a Ryota Oshima through ball, only to uncharacteristically blaze his shot over the bar.

The home side was again denied when Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi clawed away a glancing header from Tatsuki Nara in the 28th minute, and a moment of indecision cost Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi when he found himself through on goal minutes later.

“We were doing really well breaking them down, but we just couldn’t finish off the chances,” said Kobayashi.

Frontale kept up the onslaught as the second half got underway, but Higashiguchi denied Kobayashi with a sharp save in the 54th minute and Shogo Taniguchi shot over the bar from a good position soon after.

“Higashiguchi had a great game today and we could have conceded two or three more if it hadn’t been for him,” said Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa.

The game looked to be heading toward a stalemate when Akihiro Ienaga somehow contrived to miss with the goal at his mercy in the 75th minute, only for Elsinho to save the day with eight minutes left to play. Nakamura swung in a corner that Ienaga headed on, and Elsinho was in position to blast the ball over the line.

“We scored that goal because we didn’t give up, even after missing all those chances,” said Elsinho. “The team all came together to win the game and that was far more important than my goal.

“You always get a little bit nervous when the goals aren’t going in but we were creating a lot of chances. We kept our heads and played our style of football and got our reward with the goal.”

Gamba could have had a penalty in injury time after an apparent handball by Nara, but instead Frontale held on to see out the win and keep the trophy out of Kashima’s hands for at least another week.

“We have to win the two games we have left,” said Ienaga. “We believed in ourselves from start to finish today. We just had to go for it.”