Cerezo on brink of first-stage title

By Jeremy Walker
 TOKYO (May 21)--Cerezo Osaka are just 90 minutes away from being crowned champions of the J.League's first stage in the first championship of the new millennium.
 After winning a pulsating, end-to-end encounter against the Yokohama F Marinos 3-2 at a packed-out Mitsuzawa Stadium on Saturday night, Cerezo can wrap up the first-stage title at home to Kawasaki Frontale at Nagai Stadium in Osaka on Saturday, May 27.

 On paper, Cerezo should have no problems beating last season's second division champions, as the two teams are separated by 14 places and a mammoth 21 points in the 16-team first division.
 But with glory on the line, Cerezo will need nerves of steel to complete the job in front of their own fans on what is sure to be a tense occasion.

 Just look what's happened recently in a couple of Europe's major leagues.
 In Italy, mighty Juventus slipped up 1-0 away to little Perugia on the last day of the season and handed the title to Lazio.
 And in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen needed only a draw away to Unterhaching to clinch the Bundesliga, but they lost 2-0 and saw Bayern Munich pip them at the post and claim the crown.

 Earlier this year, Bayern and Cerezo signed a three-year deal whereby the Japanese club can study the management and daily administration of one of the world's most famous and successful football clubs.
 It looks like the Bavarian magic is already rubbing off on Cerezo, who have a wonderful opportunity to win a first stage championship, not just for themselves but the whole of the success-starved Kansai soccer region.
 The fans who travelled from Osaka to Yokohama for Saturday's match of the season sang their hearts out for their team, despite torrential rain and a boisterous following for Yokohama.
 The queues for "soccer specials" from the bus station outside Yokohama Station to Mitsuzawa Stadium ran into their hundreds as fans rekindled their desire for J.League action and did not want to miss the big occasion.
 What a game it was!
 Twice Cerezo took the lead in handsome, confident style--first through left-sided midfielder Masaya Nishitani after only 12 minutes and then through striker Akinori Nishizawa after 49 minutes--only for the F Marinos to come storming back.

 World Cup central defender Norio Omura headed the first equaliser after 26 minutes, and striker Daisuke Tonoike nodded the second just 10 minutes from time to make it 2-2.
 The match had been fiercely fought at a frantic pace and looked to be heading for extra time when Cerezo's Yoon Jong Hwan lined up a corner kick on the right with less than two minutes to go.
 When the corner came over, fellow Korean Noh Jung Yoon managed to steer the ball goalwards, where Marinos' Japanese international goalkeeper, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, failed to hold the ball on the greasy surface.
 The crowd held its breath as the ball broke free invitingly in front of goal, and Cerezo central defender Daisuke Saito was the first to react, prodding it into the empty net before being buried under an avalanche of team-mates.

 Behind the goal, the Cerezo fans were in raptures; at the other end, silence.
 It was a huge win for Cerezo, moving them two points clear of Yokohama (29 to 27) with only one game left.
 Marinos could have won the stage if they'd beaten Cerezo inside 90 minutes to collect three points, but now they must lift their spirits for Saturday's game against JEF United Ichihara at Tokyo's National Stadium and hope Frontale can produce a mini-miracle at Nagai Stadium.
 Cerezo's manager Hiroshi Soejima, who was promoted from the coaching ranks during the close-season, was relieved and delighted, but trying to keep his feet on the ground.
 "This was a very important game, but only the next one of a sequence and with one still to play," said Soejima.
 "For the last four games I've asked my players to open one door at a time, and they have responded superbly.
 "Tonight they showed their full power. Yokohama had a lot of possession but we didn't allow them to use it because we kept our shape and balance as a team.
 "We created many chances and I always felt we were capable of scoring another goal."
 His opposite number, Ossie Ardiles, was gracious in defeat, but also defiant. "Congratulations to Cerezo for winning a match which was open to the very end," said the Argentine.
 "But we still have one game to play and we must see what happens.
 "Before the game I didn't feel we were a better team than Cerezo, but we had one more point and were at home, so naturally we expected to win. It's very disappointing."

 Cerezo and Yokohama have left the chasing pack behind.
 FC Tokyo are third on 23 points, four adrift of second-placed Yokohama, after losing 2-1 at home to Vissel Kobe.
 Kashiwa Reysol jumped to fourth on 23, behind FC Tokyo on goal difference, by winning 4-2 away to Frontale.
 Defending champions Jubilo Iwata are fifth on 22 from 13 games thanks to a 3-2 win in extra time away to Kyoto Purple Sanga; and Shimizu S-Pulse are sixth, also on 22 from 13, following a 3-2 defeat at home to Verdy Kawasaki, for whom Korean striker Kim Hyun Seog netted twice, including the extra-time golden goal.
 In other games, Sanfrecce Hiroshima added another big scalp to their recent collection by beating Kashima Antlers 1-0 with a late penalty from Aussie midfielder Steve Corica.
 JEF United won 3-0 away to fading Avispa Fukuoka and jumped to 19 points, alongside Vissel, Sanfrecce and Antlers in mid-table.  Nagoya Grampus Eight, without suspended Yugoslav Dragan Stojkovic, also won in extra time, 2-1 away to Gamba Osaka, vital points in the battle to avoid relegation.
 Even with the first stage not quite over, Kyoto (seven points) and Frontale (eight) look to be favourites for the drop, as Avispa in the "safe" 14th position have 15 points.