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Monday, Nov. 19, 2007

Urawa misses chance to clinch

Staff writer

SAITAMA — Shimizu S-Pulse brought Urawa Reds back down to earth on Sunday with a 0-0 draw that blew the J. League title race wide open.

News photo
Reds defender Yuki Abe (left) competes with Shimizu defender Kazumichi Takagi for the ball in the air during Sunday's match at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday afternoon. The game was a scoreless draw. KYODO PHOTO

Reds went into the match hoping to complete a historic double by clinching the championship four days after winning their first Asian Champions League crown on Wednesday night.

A win for Urawa, coupled with defeats for nearest challengers Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers, would have given the Reds their second league title in two years, but a frustrating stalemate at Saitama Stadium now puts a very different complexion on things.

Kashima leapt into second place with a 1-0 win over Kashiwa Reysol, four points behind the leading Reds with two games remaining.

The first of those comes next Saturday when the top two go head to head in a game that could decide the destination of the 2007 J. League championship.

Yuji Funayama's 42nd minute goal catapulted Antlers into a title shot few would have believed possible a nmonth into the season.

A terrible start saw Kashima take only six points from their first six matches, but a win against Urawa next week would take them within one point of the leaders going into the final day of the season.

Gamba's 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo keeps the Osaka side in the hunt, but they will be ruing the missed opportunity to gain even more ground on an Urawa side that must now be frantically looking over its shoulder.

Reds manager Holder Osieck insists his players can keep their heads and claim the title.

"This is a very hard period for us," he said.

"We have had six or seven weeks in a row not just traveling to Hiroshima, but traveling around the world. Even businessmen would find it hard to work straight away in that situation.

"The players must be professional, but they just can't keep up. Of course they are tired.

"Now we have a week without a midweek game and I expect my players to go into the Antlers match in good condition."

Injuries as well as fatigue must also have had Osieck cursing his luck on Sunday, as his squad suffered a further setback in the 15th minute when midfield fulcrum Keita Suzuki was forced from the field following an accidental clash of heads.

The 26-year-old has been outstanding all season, and he again looked in a voracious mood as he established early control for Urawa in the center of the park.

"After we lost Suzuki," Osieck began, "(Hideki) Uchidate came in and filled that difficult role excellently.

"We were missing key players, and the players that came in for them gave everything."

But much as Uchidate tried to fill Suzuki's bright yellow boots, the Japan international's departure immediately ceded command to the visitors.

Fernandinho and Jungo Fujimoto began to pull the strings for S-Pulse as Urawa struggled to reorganize in midfield, and Reds instead turned to the wings as a route to goal.

But with Takahito Soma and Tadaaki Hirakawa wasteful with their crossing, and without the suspended Washington to aim for, the stalemate looked set to continue for the duration of the first half.

The well-oiled wheels that had taken the Reds to within touching distance of the title were grinding to a halt, and goalkeeper Ryota Tsuzuki had to be on his guard as Fernandinho stole into the box for a shot just before the halftime whistle.

The home fans' frustration was exacerbated as the news came in that Gamba and Antlers had both just taken the lead, almost simultaneously, in their respective games.

Yuichiro Nagai began the second half looking hungrier than he had in the first, but his darting runs went unrewarded as the Reds stumbled with almost every move.

Uchidate did manage to fire off a dangerous drive for the home side, but too many passes were going astray for Urawa to build a sustained assault on the S-Pulse goal.

Robson Ponte and Yuki Abe went close as the Reds turned the screw a little, and Shimizu's Keisuke Iwashita almost gave them a helping hand when he narrowly avoided chesting the ball into his own net.

Urawa looked to its most creative players, Ponte and Makoto Hasebe, to pick their way through the mass of defenders, but S-Pulse held firm while launching a few raids of their own.

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