The homestand is over.
The long march is just beginning.
FC Tokyo’s last home game before a grueling run of eight straight road fixtures ended in a 1-0 defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in front of 30,015 fans at Ajinomoto Stadium.
The J. League first-division leaders, who are vacating to make room for the upcoming 2019 Rugby World Cup, entered the evening with a seven-point advantage over second-place Kashima Antlers.
Tokyo had hoped to increase that number with a win against twice-former manager Hiroshi Jofuku’s Sanfrecce side.
“We know they’re a very tough team to beat and they never allow many chances, so our strategy was to let them run in the hot and humid conditions today, and keep our poise and patience,” Sanfrecce defender Emil Salomonsson said. “It paid off in the end, and I think (the win) is well-deserved.”
The scoreless first half, which required a water break in the 30th minute, offered few solid opportunities on goal. Hiroshima boasted a slight advantage in possession at 55 percent, but struggled to penetrate the Tokyo penalty area.
Tokyo’s swift counterattacks featuring scoring machines Diego Oliveira and Kensuke Nagai looked more threatening, but none resulted in a chance that got past Sanfrecce goalkeeper Keisuke Osako.
A number of physical skirmishes before halftime indicated the possibility of a more aggressive second half, and tempers did flare briefly when Sanfrecce’s Rhayner was tackled in the middle of the pitch by Tokyo defender Sei Muroya. Three Tokyo players — Oliveira, Higashi, and substitute striker Jael — ended the night with cautions.
“I wouldn’t praise Diego for his yellow but he did well to get back and stop that counter (shortly before halftime),” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said. “Higashi was a bit tired and (the foul happened) around when I was thinking about subbing him out.
“I don’t think it was a loss of discipline, but it couldn’t be helped as we had to stop Hiroshima’s counters.”
The opening goal went to Sanfrecce in the 61st, just minutes after veteran midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama came off the bench. Hayao Kawabe dished the ball to Yoshifumi Kashiwa, who rushed through Tokyo’s defense and sent a short-range bullet that bounced off Hayashi’s hands and into the top of the net.
“(Aoyama) has had a difficult half year,” Jofuku said of 33-year-old Aoyama, whose three appearances this season have all come in August. “I want to use him more. He was able to control the midfield and his passes created chances for us.”
Hasegawa immediately responded by bringing on Brazilian striker Jael and midfield maestro Hirotaka Mita, but neither were able to make enough of an impact to put the hosts on the board.
Tokyo’s push for an equalizer did give Sanfrecce more room to attack, and the three-time champions nearly made it 2-0 in the 84th minute when Osako’s long punt found Kawabe onside and behind the last defender, forcing Tsuyoshi Watanabe to sprint back and make a desperate clearance.
Kashiwa had a similar opportunity of his own deep into stoppage time, but he was stifled in the box by Muroya in a play praised by Hasegawa as “something (Tokyo) can build on.”
Elsewhere on Saturday night, Kashima Antlers defeated Oita Trinita 1-0 to reduce their gap with FC Tokyo to just four points.
Kawasaki Frontale neutralized Shun Nagasawa’s brace to draw 2-2 at Vegalta Sendai, while Hiroaki Okuno’s two goals gave Cerezo Osaka a 2-0 win at Yokohama F. Marinos.
Consadole romped to an 8-0 win away at Shimizu S-Pulse, with Jay Bothroyd netting a hat trick and Chanathip scoring two goals.
At BMW Stadium, a dramatic Takashi Kanai goal five minutes into stoppage time gave Sagan Tosu a 3-2 win over Shonan Bellmare.
Vissel Kobe were the only home team to win on Saturday, with Kyogo Furuhashi, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Andres Iniesta scoring in a 3-0 victory over Urawa Reds.
The 23rd round’s two remaining games are slated for Sunday, with Matsumoto Yamaga hosting Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka taking on last-place Jubilo Iwata.