KOBE - Serginho struck his first goal of the J. League first-division campaign Sunday as Kashima Antlers outclassed struggling Vissel Kobe 1-0.
The Brazilian forward found the net in the 17th minute at Noevir Stadium to consign Vissel to its sixth straight league defeat.
With a host of big-name foreign players, the presumptive glamor club has continued to flounder following the shock departure of manager Juan Manuel Lillo in mid-April.
Antlers, meanwhile, are in striking distance of the top three following back-to-back league wins.
Manager Go Oiwa made five changes to the side that lost 1-0 away to Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim in the Asian Champions League’s Group E on Wednesday.
Kashima dominated the first half and could have gone into the break with a bigger lead after taking 14 shots, seven on target, while restricting Kobe to a single off-target attempt.
The Asian champions were particularly effective attacking from the left, with winger Ryohei Shirasaki and left-back Koki Anzai creating overlaps and sending balls into the middle for Serginho.
The Brazilian target man put the visitors ahead by beating Kobe keeper Kim Seung Gyu with a superb lunging volley after racing to a ball over the top from Shirasaki.
The visitors came close to doubling their lead from a corner kick in first-half stoppage time, with Kento Misao hitting the crossbar with a header before Tomoya Inukai’s follow-up attempt was blocked on the goal line.
Vissel gave a more focused effort in the second half, but they were still unable to generate quality attempts.
Andres Iniesta came off the bench for Takayuki Yoshida’s side in the 68th minute, substituting for former Barcelona teammate Sergi Samper.
Former Spain striker David Villa started up front for Vissel, while fellow World Cup winner and former Germany forward Lukas Podolski remained sidelined with a hamstring strain.
Oiwa said his team had room for improvement, but praised them for an energetic performance following their long midweek trip.
“The play leading up to the goal was very good. After that, there were still several areas that needed work,” the 46-year-old Oiwa said. “Overall it was a good effort under tough conditions after coming back from Malaysia.”
Serginho, who has scored five goals in cup and Asian club competition this season, said the team had been confident of bouncing back following the loss in Johor.
“We all came here with a strong feeling that we could take the three points on the road. This was a great team win,” said 24-year-old Serginho, one of the heroes of Antlers’ maiden ACL title run last year.
In other first division action, 17-year-old star Takefusa Kubo scored the winner with a highlight-reel strike from the edge of the area as league-leading FC Tokyo beat visiting Jubilo Iwata 1-0.
At Toyota Stadium, Nagoya Grampus beat visiting Urawa Reds 2-0 with goals from Brazilians Jo and Mateus.
Oita Trinita maintained its position in the top three with a 1-0 win away to Shonan Bellmare.
Back-to-back champion Kawasaki Frontale is one point behind Trinita after thrashing Shimizu S-Pulse 4-0 at IAI Stadium.
At Yurtec Stadium, Yoshiki Matsushita scored the winner in injury time as Vegalta Sendai beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1.
Promoted Matsumoto Yamaga played out a scoreless draw against visiting Consadole Sapporo.