A home team playing in front of a friendly crowd for the first time in three months, hoping to win its first-ever league title.
Visitors in free fall, nine games without a win and barely holding onto a relegation playoff spot that will allow it one last chance to stay in the top flight.
Constant rain and driving winds contributing to difficult pitch conditions, with the mercury reaching just 12 C at kickoff.
What could go wrong?
For both FC Tokyo and Shonan Bellmare, the answer was “plenty” in a tense and slippery 1-1 draw at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday that changed the capital club from leaders to pursuers in the J. League first-division title race.
“It’s good that we were able to get the draw,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said. “I asked (Captain Keigo) Higashi and he said ‘we felt stiff.’
“We didn’t know what sort of match this would be until we opened the lid, and in the end it was difficult.”
Entering the day with a one-point lead over Yokohama F. Marinos in the standings, Tokyo hoped to turn its first home game since mid-August into three points that would propel it closer to J1 glory.
Kenta Hasegawa’s men faced a relegation-threatened Bellmare that has been rudderless since a power harassment investigation brought an end to the tenure of former coach Cho Kwi-jea.
“There were far more Tokyo supporters than Bellmare supporters, but our fans cheered loudly and the players fought a good match,” Shonan manager Bin Ukishima said. “Tokyo (were) in first place and they play with a clearly defined style, plus they have a lot of national team players. We did very well against a team like that.”
Shonan came out of the starting gate aggressively, with several hard fouls receiving strong warnings from referee Minoru Tojo before Toichi Suzuki and Takuya Okamoto were both shown yellow cards.
Even as the visitors danced with the danger of a red card, Tokyo never seemed to be quite in sync, with frequent turnovers and an attack that lacked its usual intensity. Soon Bellmare had a chance of its own, with Naoki Yamada’s screamer from the edge of the box at the perfect height but drifting wide and clipping the left post.
Yamada eventually contributed to the first goal of the game, crossing to an unmarked Temma Matsuda whose 36th-minute shot appeared potentially wide but was bundled into the goal by Tokyo defender Masato Morishige. Matsuda was credited for the goal.
“We have a lot of players who can hunt for the ball and that lets us make chances,” Matsuda said. “But we need to improve our precision. That goal came from what we’ve been doing offensively.”
With less than four minutes to play in the first half, Tokyo defender Sei Muroya appeared to be taken down in the penalty area on a solo run, but Tojo declined to point to the spot and Bellmare eventually headed into the locker room with a 1-0 lead.
The rain had reduced to a light-but-constant mist as the second half kicked off, and Tokyo continued to struggle in the final third as Bellmare’s defense stiffened up and rushed to protect its advantage.
Facing the potential for what would have been a demoralizing defeat, Hasegawa was aggressive in his substitutions with midfielder Hirotaka Mita and Yu In-soo as well as striker Kyosuke Tagawa taking to the pitch.
The fresh legs did not seem like quite enough as Tokyo’s struggles continued and the rain intensified heading into an eyebrow-raising five minutes of stoppage time.
The 94th-minute equalizer in fact came from Morishige, who pounced on a second ball roughly 30 meters out, unleashing a screaming half-volley that rocked the back of the net.
“We didn’t intend to play so defensively in the second half,” Ukishima said. “We wanted to raise our line as we did in the first half, but we didn’t have the strength to push up so we fell back, plus there was a long period of stoppage time.”
The dramatic draw was enough to keep 63-point Tokyo one point behind Marinos, who defeated 17th-place Matsumoto Yamaga through Teruhito Nakagawa’s early goal at Sunpro Alwin Stadium to jump into first place with 64 points.
The win clinched participation in the 2020 Asian Champions League, marking the club’s return to continental soccer for the first time since 2014. Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou last participated in the ACL in 2012 during his time in charge of Australia’s Brisbane Roar.
Marinos could clinch the title next week with a win at Kanagawa Derby rival Kawasaki Frontale and a Tokyo defeat to the Urawa Reds, who will contest the second leg of the ACL final on Sunday.
“We’re trying to win points in each game. There’s nothing that can be done about the games that have already happened,” said Hasegawa. “All we can do is prepare to win the next game.”
Shonan may rue the two points it left on the table as it rose to 32 points overall, just two above Matsumoto. The J1’s 16th-place team will host a J2 side in a one-legged promotion-relegation playoff final next month.
Last-place Jubilo Iwata extended their slim hopes of J1 survival with a dramatic 2-1 win over Consadole Sapporo. Daigo Araki was the hero for the visitors at Sapporo Dome in the seventh minute of stoppage time after Kazuki Fukai’s 88th-minute goal for Consadole had canceled Adailton’s 26th-minute opener.
Jubilo now sits just two points behind Matsumoto in 18th and would need to overtake both Matsumoto and Shonan to reach what would be a second straight pro-rel final for the Yamaha Stadium residents.
The third-place Kashima Antlers earned a scoreless draw at Sanfrecce Hiroshima to keep their faint championship ambitions alive. Go Oiwa’s men need two wins to end the season, as well as Tokyo and Marinos losing their games next week before drawing when they face each other on Dec. 7 at Nissan Stadium, in order to secure the club’s ninth title.
In other results, Vissel Kobe won 1-0 against Cerezo Osaka to officially avoid the threat of relegation, Gamba Osaka defeated Vegalta Sendai 2-0, Shimizu S-Pulse drew 1-1 against Oita Trinita, and Nagoya Grampus and Sagan Tosu battled to a scoreless draw.