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Kengo Nakamura’s second-half strike sends Frontale past Vegalta

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kawasaki Frontale maintained the pressure on J. League leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima with a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai in steamy conditions on Saturday.

Kengo Nakamura scored in the 55th minute at Todoroki Stadium to keep defending champions Frontale six points behind Sanfrecce — who beat Cerezo Osaka 1-0 — with a game in hand. Sanfrecce have 10 games of the season remaining.

The temperature reached 31 degrees with 67 percent humidity at pitch level despite the game kicking off at 7 p.m., but Frontale manager Toru Oniki was pleased to see his team cope with the sweltering heat and rack up another three points.

“We struggled a little in the first half, but the players dug in and managed to play their usual kind of game after the break,” said Oniki. “It’s really tough playing 90 minutes in heat like this, so for the players to get the win tonight is a credit to them.

“I told the players not to rush so much in the second half. We made a few mistakes that were unlike us, but that happens in heat like this. In the second half we managed to take control of the game. It would have been good to score a second goal, though, and if we can do that we can become a better team.”

Sanfrecce, who beat Cerezo thanks to a 19th-minute Sho Inagaki goal, had built up a 12-point lead earlier in the season but have seen their advantage gradually whittled away since play resumed following the World Cup break.

Frontale have now lost only once in their last 11 games, and Nakamura was happy to see his side keep on the leaders’ tails.

“It was a tough game,” said Nakamura, who pounced on a mistake by Vegalta defender Kazuki Oiwa to break the deadlock. “To be able to go through that and actually get the job done and take the three points is excellent.

“We’ve had a lot of games recently where we’ve had a lot of possession against defensive teams, and we’ve talked about the importance of taking our chances when they come. We created opportunities today, even though we didn’t take them all, and we can take confidence from this game.”

Frontale striker Yu Kobayashi was a constant thorn in Vegalta’s side in the first half, first hitting the post with a deflected shot in the 27th minute before drawing a save out of goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt with a header eight minutes later.

Hiroyuki Abe also hit the post with a shot in first-half injury time, but Frontale finally managed to make the breakthrough 10 minutes after the interval. Schmidt over-hit a kick that left his own defense scrambling to recover, and Oiwa miscontrolled the ball to leave Nakamura free to tuck the ball past Schmidt.

Oiwa almost deflected a cross from Frontale substitute Manabu Saito into his own net as the home team pressed for another goal to make the game safe, before Schmidt again denied Kobayashi with an excellent reflex save.

“We’ve had a run of games recently so I picked my team according to which players were fresh,” said Vegalta manager Susumu Watanabe. “The game plan was to keep things tight at the back.

“There were a lot of occasions where we made mistakes after winning the ball, and that is something that we need to improve. It’s not enough just to defend well. You have to then link up with the players going forward.”

Elsewhere in the J. League, Kashiwa Reysol added to V-Varen Nagasaki’s woes with a 5-1 win over the division’s last-place side, while Consadole Sapporo came from behind to beat Shimizu S-Pulse 2-1.