The J1 title race could have been wrapped up on Saturday but Yokohama F Marinos missed their cue and lost for the second home game in a row. Here’s my report for The Japan News…
YOKOHAMA — Yokohama F Marinos were unable to seal the J.League Division One title on Saturday, falling to a 2-0 defeat at home to Albirex Niigata.
A win would have secured a fourth J1 crown for Marinos, but Kengo Kawamata lashed home the opener for Albirex in the 72nd minute and substitute Musashi Suzuki made sure of the result with a second in injury time.
“We wanted to decide it today, but now we have to face up to reality and win the 34th game,” Marinos coach Yasuhiro Higuchi said after the game. “It’s still in our hands. Even if we only win 1-0, that will give us the title next week.”
As is so often the case in the J.League, the race for the title will now go down to the last round of games next Saturday, when Sanfrecce Hiroshima could pip Marinos to the post.
A giant crowd of 62,632 had gathered at Nissan Stadium in the expectation of seeing Marinos crowned champions for the first time since 2004, and the home side did have the better of the early exchanges.
In just the ninth minute Shingo Hyodo fizzed a low cross in from the right, but Albirex goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi reacted the quickest to foil Marquinhos, who was ready to pounce.
Then Manabu Saito embarked upon a weaving run in the 22nd minute and teed up Kosuke Nakamachi, but his effort was struck straight at Higashiguchi.
Although they were probing well, Marinos looked to be feeling the pressure a little, and they lacked composure in the final third with the last pass often going astray.
In the 33rd minute, left-back Dutra did find space in the box and dinked in a cross for his fellow Brazilian Marquinhos, but after setting himself, Marinos’ top-scorer could only head straight at Higashiguchi.
Around the hour mark, Marinos earned several corners, and their best chance came from one in the 63rd minute, when Yuji Nakazawa found himself unmarked in the center of the box.
The former Japan captain met Shunsuke Nakamura’s outswinger firmly, but saw his header arrow narrowly past the post.
Marinos continued to dominate possession but could only fashion half-chances, and they were soon made to pay for their lack of cutting edge.
Yuzo Kurihara misjudged an attempted clearance from a corner and was mortified to see his header fly straight to Kawamata, who made no mistake from close-range.
“We were thinking that if we could get to halftime at 0-0, then we could go for it in the second half,” Higuchi admitted.
“Things went largely according to the game plan but in the end we couldn’t fight back from going a goal down.”
It looked like Nakamura was set to equalize in the 79th minute as Higashiguchi parried out to the former Celtic star, but his rasping effort was blocked bravely by Kim Jin Su.
Three minutes later, Marquinhos spun his marker smartly and tore into space deep in the Albirex half, but substitute Yoshihito Fujita could only sweep his cut-back wide of the near post.
That was the closest Marinos would come, and as they frantically pressed for an equalizer Suzuki rounded off a smart Albirex counter-attack to wrap up the three points for the visitors.
“In the second half we felt the strength of the Marinos players and survived many dangerous scenes,” Albirex coach Masaaki Yanagishita said post-game.
“It was a difficult atmosphere but the players concentrated well for the whole 90 minutes.”
Sanfrecce moved into second place courtesy of a 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare, with midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama claiming the game’s only goal. Kashima Antlers jumped up into third on the back of a 2-1 win at Cerezo Osaka as Yuya Osako and Atsutaka Nakamura found the net.
Marinos must now beat Kawasaki Frontale away next Saturday to make absolutely sure of the title, and any slip up on their part could see Sanfrecce—who take on Antlers—crowned champions. Kashima also have a mathematical chance, although it would need to overturn a substantial goal difference to claim an eighth J1 title.
Urawa Reds had started the day in second, but fell to a comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Sagan Tosu and dropped down into fourth and may now miss out on the Asian Champions League.