|Niigata players celebrate one of their four goals|
against league leaders Nagoya Grampus
Despite league leaders Nagoya Grampus suffering a shock 1-4 loss to Albirex Niigata, others results meant they still finished the weekend with an eight point lead.
After returning from the international break, Nagoya faced a tricky assignment away to Niigata who have stumbled after a mid-season revival.
Niigata, who only began life as a J.League club in 1999 (starting out in Division 2), were on track for their best ever finish in J1, bettering their sixth place finish in 2007. However a run of five straight games without a win has seen them slip to tenth.
The match started brightly enough for Nagoya, with a couple of half chances early on, however a free kick on 31 minutes from Marcio Richardes, who is attracting renewed interest from Urawa Reds, managed to sail into the back of the net without getting a touch.
The lead would only last 3 minutes as the league’s leading marksman found the back of the net again. Josh Kennedy found the back of the net for his 15th goal of the season and put Nagoya back on level terms.
The home side wasn’t content with going in level at half time and just minutes from the break snatched back the lead courtesy of a sensational volley from midfielder Yuta Mikato.
Fellow midfielder Michael looked to be running out of room near the corner flag, yet somehow found enough room to whip in a cross which was met by Mikato with pinpoint precision.
Just moments later Niigata stunned everyone by scoring a third after carving open the Nagoya defence on the counter. Hideo Oshima was the man on the spot to tap the ball home after Michael played through Richardes, who chose to fire the ball across goal to his teammate rather than go for glory.
Nagoya’s afternoon went from bad to worse early in the second half when midfielder Naoshi Nakamura was shown a second yellow for a careless tackle on the edge o the box.
In the 74th minute Niigata put the game completely out of Nagoya’s reach when the first two goal scorers combined to score Niigata’s fourth. It was that man Michael again who played a delightful ball for Mikato to run onto. The midfielder then cut the ball back for Richardes to delightfully curled the ball around the keeper to seal his brace.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Urawa Reds played host to Cerezo Osaka in a mouthwatering encounter. Urawa are making a late run for an ACL spot, with four wins and three draws from their last seven games.
|Haraguchi fires in the winner for Urawa|
Cerezo on the other hand have only won one of their last four and are now in a dogfight for an ACL spot.
Urawa made the ideal start when Edmilson fired home in the 14th minute. Cerezo paid the price for dwelling on the ball in the box, coughing up possession and ultimately a goal.
Cerezo should’ve drawn level on 21 minutes.
Brazilian forward Adriano looked to be through on goal, only to be bought down on the edge of the box by the much-maligned Keisuke Tsuboi. Or so it looked.
The referee failed to blow for the foul, but the ball fell perfectly for Hiroshi Kiyotake, but he put his shot wide with only the keeper to beat.
Cerezo were unlucky again just before half time when Amarel saw his header bounce back of the woodwork and safely cleared by the Urawa defence.
Cerezo were doing all the attacking but couldn’t find a way past Norihiro Yamagishi and they were made to pay when Genki Haraguchi scored a contender for goal of the year on 79 minutes.
After collecting the ball wide on the touchline, Haraguchi cut back in and skipped past a number of defenders before firing in a rocket from the edge of the box.
That was enough to seal the three points for Urawa and move them to within 5 points of Kashima in second place.
After the match manager Volker Finke sang the praises of the spirit in the team after the performances in the last two months, which is now 5 wins and 3 draws.
“…the team is getting better as a whole and our team spirit is also getting stronger. For this reason, I think our team now can play as one in a true sense,” he said.
In other games on Saturday Kashima Antlers could be left to rue the two points dropped in their 1-1 draw with Shonan Bellmare. Despite sitting last, Shonan were able to stun the Ibaraki-based outfit with a 90th minute equaliser.
|Vegalta Sendai and FC Tokyo in action|
Vegalta Sendai heaped further misery on FC Tokyo. The capital club looked to be on track for its second consecutive win before two goals in the final five minutes gave Sendai all three points. Sendai now sit in 13th, seven points above the relegation zone and appear to have almost done enough to guarantee their survival for next season.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata played out a 1-1 draw, whilst Kawasaki got all three points against Montedio Yamagata.
Gamba Osaka thumped Omiya Ardija 5-1 to move into third position, displacing their cross-town rivals Cerezo in the process.
The other surprise result saw one-time contender Shimzu S-Pulse held to a 1-1 with Kyoto Sanga. S-Pulse now sit in seventh and on current form will struggle to take anything out of a season that looked full of promise early on.
The final game of the weekend saw Yokohama F.Marinos play host to Vissel Kobe. With Kobe placed in the relegation zone, they weren’t expected to put up much of a fight against an. F.Marinos side aiming for an ACL spot, even without their star playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura.
Kobe, however, should’ve taken the lead after 15 minutes, but Yoshito Okubu lacked conviction in his shot and hit it straight at the keeper.
|Yuji Ono scored the winner for Yokohama against Kobe|
Despite have most of the attacking play, F.Marinos were restricted largely to shots from distance, all to no avail.
Kobe’s task was made even harder when Hiroyuki Komoto was shown a red card in the 59th minute for a careless tackle on Yusuke Tanaka.
No less than four minutes later F.Marinos took the lead through Yuji Ono after a nice piece of interplay on the edge of the box.
And 1-0 is how the game would end, a result which took F.Marinos up to sixth position.
So close is the J.League that the teams from second to eighth are separated by just 5 points, which makes every game crucial and every point dropped an opportunity lost.
With just 8 games to go what happens next is anyone’s guess.