I was at Saitama Stadium to see J1’s top two go head-to-head on Saturday. Here’s my match report for The Japan News…
SAITAMA – Urawa Reds asserted its authority at the top of the J1 table on Saturday, downing reigning champion Gamba Osaka 1-0 in front of 53,148 fans at Saitama Stadium.
Zlatan Ljubijankic was the hero for the home side, converting the decisive goal of the game in the 84th minute to give Reds some breathing space at the summit.
“I think we were the better team and wanted this win more than our opponent, and I think we deserved it,” Ljubijankic said after the game.
“As a striker you have to be patient for this one chance, you have to concentrate on this and try to score. Ok, I scored this goal but my part was easy. The cross was perfect and for me I was just in the right place at the right time.”
The game had been a cat-and-mouse affair of few clear chances – understandably so with both teams coming into the match in good form and sitting first and second in the table, respectively.
Urawa started the day a point ahead of its visitors at the top of the pile having gone the first eight rounds of the first stage of the season unbeaten.
Gamba came into the game as the form team, however, having won its last six games in the top flight.
In Takashi Usami Gamba have the most predatory marksman in the division, too, with the 22-year-old having scored in each of the six league games coming into this encounter – including the decisive goals in wins over Shimizu S-Pulse and Matsumoto Yamaga.
It was Ljubijankic who had the first sight on goal in the 7th minute, though. The Slovenian almost wormed his way into a one-on-one with Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, but makeshift rightback Shohei Ogura managed to make an impressive last-ditch tackle to end the attack.
Usami then had Gamba’s first potshot on goal, sending a dipping drive just over the bar with an effort from range in the 12th minute.
His strike partner Patric fired another warning shot in the 18th minute, whistling a strike just past Shusaku Nishikawa’s right-hand post after Urawa’s defenders failed to close him down properly.
After Gamba’s early pressure Reds began to feel their way into the game, and Ryota Moriwaki very nearly broke the deadlock in the 22nd minute.
The wingback received a cheeky backheel from fellow defender Tomoaki Makino 25 meters from goal, but his well-struck effort curled inches wide of the target.
Ljubijankic was then in a prime position to send the hosts into the halftime break ahead, but was unable to connect properly when the ball fell for him in the six-yard box in the 44th minute.
It looked like it wasn’t going to be the 31-year-old’s day when he failed to convert another chance in the 67th minute, shooting straight at Higashiguchi from close range.
Yasuhito Endo then almost broke the deadlock at the other end in the 76th minute, hitting the crossbar after dinking a trademark free-kick over the Reds wall from 20 meters.
Ljubijankic did finally make the breakthrough eight minutes later, however, coolly slotting into an open net after Tomoya Ugajin’s cross from the left of the penalty area to maintain Reds unbeaten start to the season.
“We all remember what happened half-a-year ago,” Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic said after the game, in reference to the 2-0 defeat suffered against Gamba which derailed Reds’ 2014 title push.
“Last year we had the chance to win the title and let it slip. This is a different season and a fresh start but last year’s defeat has stayed with us. Today’s game has gone some way to dispelling that feeling.”
Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus picked up its fourth win in five games, defeating Shonan Bellmare 3-0. Kensuke Nagai and Kengo Kawamata struck in the first half before Marcus Tulio Tanaka made sure of the result late on.
Meanwhile. Montedio Yamagata picked up just its second league win of the season, downing Yokohama F.Marinos 1-0 thanks to Shogo Nishikawa’s 52nd minute goal.