Substitutes took centre-stage as Gamba Osaka took a crucial 2-1 victory against MEIJI YASUDA J1 League title rivals Urawa Reds on Saturday.
Japanese champions Gamba knew a win against the first stage winners would help them immensely in their bid to progress to the championship at the end of the season, and promptly took the lead in the seventh minute.
Hiroyuki Abe fired a cross-cum-shot into the Reds’ box that Yasuhito Endo failed to connect with before the ball took an awkward bounce in front of Shusaku Nishikawa and left the goalkeeper rooted as it trickled into his net.
An uneventful match burst into life then in the second half as half-time substitute Toshiyuki Takagi’s free-kick had to be palmed onto the post by Gamba custodian Masaaki Higashiguchi.
However, the visitors were against punished by a defensive lapse when Shun Nagasawa headed in Gamba’s second of the day from Endo’s precise free-kick just three minutes after coming on.
Nagasawa was then denied two golden opportunities to complete his brace as he could only send a cross against Nishikawa’s woodwork from a cross. His next attempt later on was first blocked by the Reds’ goalkeeper, before his follow-up was cleared off the line.
Zlatan Ljubijankic was then introduced with the Reds’ increasingly desperate and the Slovenian promptly tapped home in the first minute of added time, before denied an equaliser at the death after nodding Ryota Moriwaki’s cross against the crossbar before blazing his follow-up over.
Gamba therefore leapfrog Mihailo Petrovic’s men in the second stage standings and remain in touching distance of table toppers Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Kashima Antlers - the latter producing an epic 3-2 victory over Kashiwa Reysol.
The Saitama outfit were ahead by the third minute when Shuhei Akasaki slotted home after being sent through on goal, but Hidekazu Otani’s free-kick pinged around in the hosts’ box and eventually came off Daisuke Suzuki and ended in the net for Reysol’s equaliser.
Cristiano then picked up Naoki Wako’s ball, burst past Shuto Yamamoto as the full-back rushed to recover after being caught out of position, and subsequently powered his strike past Hitoshi Sogahata to put the visitors 2-1 up entering the break.
Antlers icon Leonardo took a lap of honour around the pitch to receive an ovation from the crowd at half time and the team later emerged for the second half looking a different side.
Mu Kanazaki equalised in the 69th minute with a point-blank header, leaving Yuma Suzuki to net an added time winner as his left-footed effort crossed the goal line before the excellent Takanori Sugeno could scramble across in time to parry.
There was little room for an upset at Sanfrecce as they duly dispatched Kawasaki Frontale 2-1, Kosei Shibasaki opening the scoring by curling a long-range drive into the net when a poorly-cleared free-kick fell to him.
Yoshito Okubo replied with a blockbuster of his own that Takuto Hayashi should have dealt better with, but the goalkeeper was not left to rue a draw when Satoru Yamagishi volleyed the winner for the hosts.
At Ajinomoto Stadium, FC Tokyo stumbled to a shock 2-1 defeat to Shonan Bellmare as strikes from Shota Kobayashi and Daisuke Kikuchi were enough to propel the promoted side into the top half of the second stage table.
Meanwhile, Kazuma Watanabe fired Vissel Kobe into the lead at Yokohama F.Marinos to give Nelsinho’s men a chance to end their terrible run of results.
But Ryosuke Maeda’s sending off after 40 minutes made hanging on for the win an uphill task, and Ademilson and Manabu Saito finally made the hosts’ numerical advantage count with strikes late in the second period.
Vegalta Sendai and Ventforet Kofu snatched crucial wins for survival in their relegation six-pointers at Shimizu S-Pulse and Montedio Yamagata respectively, while Albirex Niigata shrugged off their Emperor’s Cup exit in midweek with a 2-0 win over Matsumoto Yamaga.
Sagan Tosu’s 0-0 draw with Nagoya Grampus turned out to be a drab affair by comparison, as the Best Amenity Stadium outfit were unable to make the most of their scoring chances to remain hovering just over the bottom three.