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Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005

Cerezo on top, but wild finish looming


Staff Writer

YOKOHAMA -- The chase for the J. League title will go down to the final day of the season after Cerezo Osaka moved to the top of the table on Saturday with a 1-1 draw against Yokohama F. Marinos as Gamba Osaka dropped to second after going down 2-1 at home to JEF United.

With one game to play, five teams still stand a chance of clinching the title. Cerezo has 58 points from 33 matches. Gamba is in second, one point behind, with Urawa Reds, Kashima Antlers and JEF United Chiba tied on 56 points.

At the other end of the table, two-time J. League champion Tokyo Verdy was relegated to the J. League second division for the first time as fellow struggler Kashiwa Reysol thrashed the once-mighty side 5-1.

Third-from-bottom Kashiwa will play the third-place J2 side in a relegation playoff for the second year running. Vissel Kobe is already relegated.

At Nissan Stadium, Hiroaki Morishima stole in behind a napping Marinos defense to flick the ball past 'keeper Tetsuya Enomoto to give Cerezo the lead in the 45th minute in what looked like a crucial win.

But with the seconds ticking away, Marinos launched one last attack, and it was third time lucky after Rodrigo Gral and Hideo Oshima had their shots blocked before the ball fell to defender Naoki Matsuda, who fired in from close range.

Cerezo, which nearly was relegated in the 2004 season, has now strung together a 15-match unbeaten run on its way to the J. League summit.

If results went its way, Gamba could have all but clinched the title yesterday at Expo Stadium, but instead succumbed to its fifth loss in the last six league matches.

JEF bounced back from a Yasuhito Endo goal in the first half to secure the win with strikes from Yuki Abe and Satoru Yamagishi.

At Saitama Stadium 2002, an own goal was enough for Urawa Reds to beat Jubilo Iwata, while Fernando kept Kashima in the title race with an 88th-minute equalizer in the 2-2 draw at Shimizu S-Pulse.

Cerezo can win the title next Saturday if it beats FC Tokyo.

Elsewhere on Saturday, FC Tokyo drew 1-1 with Kawasaki Frontale and Oita Trinita beat Omiya Ardija 2-1.

At Nissan Stadium, Marinos looked more like the championship-chasing side for large parts of the game. They created chance after chance, but a profligate forward line made for a frustrating afternoon for the fans.

A ten-minute spell in the second half saw three good chances go begging. After Motohiro Yoshida clawed out a 25-meter swerving free-kick from Magrao on 52 minutes, Gral missed the target from point-bank range and Oshima ballooned the ball over from 5 meters out before his weak header sailed into the arms of Yoshida.

A nervy Cerezo -- perhaps realizing it is now within touching distance of the J. League crown -- was happy to sit back and let tireless forward Akinori Nishizawa open up play on the break.

Nishizawa was guilty of spurning Cerezo's single chance of the first half when he dragged his shot wide from three meters out after meeting an excellent first-time cross from Bruno Quadros.

At the death, Morishima was put through in a carbon-copy build up of the first goal, again beating Enomoto to the ball, but this time saw his shot trickle past the upright for a goal kick.

He was left to rue this opportunity as Yokohama's last attack of the game saw Matsuda do what his forwards couldn't and fire in the equalizer from close range.



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