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Defender Ryuho Kikuchi headed home a late equalizer as Vissel Kobe earned a 1-1 home draw to stop Kawasaki Frontale’s perfect start to the season in the J. League first division on Wednesday.

Defending champion Kawasaki opened the season with five straight wins and looked headed for another three points following an instinctive long-range strike from Leandro Damiao in the 72nd minute before the dramatic finale to an enthralling encounter at Noevir Stadium.

Nagoya Grampus, which has a game in hand, is now a point behind Kawasaki after securing its fifth straight win, cruising 3-0 at home over bottom side Yokohama FC, which have lost all five of its matches.

Sagan Tosu, which also has a game in hand, is two points behind Nagoya in third after Daichi Hayashi hit a brace to secure a 2-0 home win over Kashiwa Reysol. Sagan has yet to concede a goal this season.

Damiao thought he netted the opener in the 53rd minute after heading an Ienaga cross from the right only for VAR to chalk it off for an offside, The 2012 London Olympics top scorer was again denied later, this time on a one-on-one by the foot of ‘keeper Maekawa.

Damiao finally scored in the 72nd minute in an outrageous manner, with the goal allowed to stand after a long VAR review for potential offside.

After a clearance by Maekawa, who was well off his line, to the Kawasaki half was knocked straight back to Damiao just on the other side of the halfway line, the striker controlled the ball in the air before volleying it low all the way to the goal beyond the chasing Maekawa.

Kyogo Furuhashi thought he had the perfect opportunity to equalize for Kobe in the 84th minute as he latched on to a long ball from Thomas Vermaelen, but the forward failed to keep his footing after going around goalkeeper Jung.

The final chance seemed to have gone when Furuhashi set up substitute Noriaki Fujimoto on a counter in the second minute of stoppage time only for the ‘keeper to deny the equalizer with his foot, but Kikuchi had other ideas.

Another substitute Ryo Hatsuse dribbled down the left flank to provide a perfect cross for the 188-cm defender, who leaped to send a powerful header to the low bottom corner to spark a wild celebration.

“We were losing but I thought there could be one last chance, and my desire got it over the line,” said the 24-year-old. “It was my first goal at home so frankly I’m happy about that…We were pressing well high up the pitch and that was huge.”

It was a night dominated by home wins elsewhere as Cerezo Osaka beat Oita Trinita 1-0 to place fourth. Daizen Maeda scored his sixth goal of the season as Yokohama F Marinos edged past promoted Tokushima Vortis 1-0.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima overcame Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0, while Tsuyoshi Watanabe scored the winner as FC Tokyo claimed a 3-2 win over Shonan Bellmare.

Promoted Avispa Fukuoka claimed a 1-0 win over Kashima Antlers after the 10-man visitors saw a late equalizer disallowed for a foul beforehand. Urawa Reds and Consadole Sapporo played out a scoreless draw.

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