Soccer / J. League

Marinos move closer to title

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

One way or another, the trophy presented annually to the winner of the J. League’s first division was bound for Nissan Stadium after Saturday.

The big question was whether it would be transported under the careful supervision of league officials or paraded home by the victorious Yokohama F. Marinos.

Marinos did just about all they could in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki Stadium. But FC Tokyo’s 1-1 draw with Urawa Reds meant the schale would remain in the J. League’s care — for one more week.

An early goal by Teruhito Nakagawa, two by Erik and an empty net tap-in by Keita Endo secured Marinos’ first win against Frontale under manager Ange Postecoglou, who is just one match away — pending a lopsided result in Tokyo’s favor on Dec. 7 at Nissan Stadium — from adding the J1 title to the A-League and Asian Cup championships already on his distinguished resume.

“For us, nothing really changes. Irrespective of the FC Tokyo result we wanted to play well today,” said Postecoglou. “We wanted to play our football, and I think we did that.”

Across the Tama River at Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo was the dominant side but struggled to finish off a goal against Urawa, the Asian Champions League runner-up fighting to avoid 16th place and a potential battle for top-flight survival.

The pace of the sold-out game changed drastically in the 33rd minute, when Tokyo striker Diego Oliveira went down clutching his leg after being on the receiving end of a high challenge by former Marinos defender Ryosuke Yamanaka, who joined Urawa last winter.

Soon after Oliveira returned to the pitch, it was Yamanaka who again changed the course of the game and the title race in the 39th minute, ripping a 30-meter shot that Tokyo goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi saved deftly, only for Martinus, another former Yokohama man, to slam the rebound home and give Reds the lead.

At that point, Marinos were already leading 1-0 after Nakagawa scored his 15th goal of the season from close range with Mateus providing the assist with a low cross that deflected off a Frontale defender.

The rest of the first half at Todoroki was nervy, with fouls frequently exchanged and Marinos midfielder Takehiro Ogihara earning a suspension for Round 34 after he was shown a yellow card in the 24th minute.

Frontale’s best chance to equalize came in a series of attempts on goal in the 38th minute, but goalkeeper Park Il-gyu and several Marinos players managed to put their bodies in front of the ball and protect a 1-0 lead heading into halftime.

“In the last two, two-and-a-half months, our defensive work has been very good,” said Postecoglou. “It’s not just the defenders. We worked so hard as a team, everyone.

“(We’ve been) under pressure, we’ve been chasing (other) teams . . . I was interested in seeing how the players would react because it’s the first time we’ve been on top all year.”

Marinos blew the game apart by midway through the second half, with Erik deftly handling a sublime through pass from Ken Matsubara to score in the 49th minute and then notching his second of the game 20 minutes later through Nakagawa’s assist.

Frontale’s underperforming talisman Leandro Damiao made it 3-1 with his can’t-miss header in the 74th, but Endo restored Marinos’ three-point cushion in the 89th minute to send thousands of visiting Yokohama supporters wild, despite Tokyo’s Kyosuke Tagawa having evened the score for his side at Ajinomoto.

The win was Postecoglou’s first against Frontale since taking over at Marinos in 2018, following two draws and one loss.

“Coming to Kawasaki is never an easy game and (Frontale) had plenty of motivation,” Postecoglou said of the two-time defending champions, who are still in contention for a spot in the ACL following Kashima Antlers’ 3-1 loss to Vissel Kobe. “Considering the situation, for us to come here and score four goals and could have scored a couple more . . . We played some good football and I’m very proud of the boys.”

The results leave Marinos with a three-point advantage over Tokyo in the standings and a goal difference of plus-27 compared to Tokyo’s plus-20. Tokyo needs to win by four goals to bring a first-ever J1 title to the capital, and it may have to do so without Oliveira, striker Kensuke Nagai, who was substituted in the second half of that game with a shoulder injury, or defender Sei Muroya who earned a fourth yellow card in the draw.

“I think the team that are the champions are the ones that deserve to be champions. We still have to do that,” said Postecoglou of the Round 34 clash that will define the season.

“There’s no secret to success. If you can combine the football we play with hard work, you’ll give us a lot of good chances.”

At the bottom of the table, Matsumoto Yamaga were officially relegated after dropping to 18th following a 4-1 thrashing by Gamba Osaka at Panasonic Stadium.

Jubilo Iwata, last year’s J1 Playoff survivors, were also relegated despite a 2-1 win at Nagoya Grampus.

Shonan Bellmare earned its first win in 11 games with a 1-0 result over Sanfrecce Hiroshima, rising to 35 points and a minus-23 goal difference.

While the BMW Stadium residents are still in 16th and currently set to play in the promotion-relegation final, they are still within reach of Shimizu S-Pulse (36 points, minus 25), Sagan Tosu (36, minus 20), Urawa (37, minus 15) and Nagoya Grampus (37, minus four).

Elsewhere, Vegalta Sendai defeated Oita Trinita 2-0, Cerezo Osaka fought back to win 2-1 over S-Pulse, and Consadole Sapporo won 2-0 away at Tosu.