Cerezo open up title race

By Jeremy Walker

   TOKYO (July 29)--All good things must come to an end, and that's what happened to Kashima Antlers' perfect start to the second stage of the J.League on Saturday night.
   After winning their first six games to open up a three-point lead at the top of the 16-team table, Antlers came unstuck at home to Cerezo Osaka in the cruellest possible way. The game was still goalless five minutes into sudden-death extra time when Cerezo captain Hiroaki Morishima broke down the right flank. When he crossed the ball low into the Kashima box, Antlers midfielder Yasuto Honda slid in to try and intercept, only to see the ball loop over his own goalkeeper, Daijiro Takakuwa, and into the net.
   The 1-0 victory for the visitors sent renewed hope around the league, and second-placed Gamba Osaka, as well as heavyweights Jubilo Iwata and Nagoya Grampus Eight, took advantage to make up some ground on Kashima.

   After seven of the 15 games, though, Antlers are still ahead with 18 points, one more than Gamba, who beat FC Tokyo 2-1 at home, again in extra time. Olympic team striker Kota Yoshihara shot Gamba ahead, only for French defender Claude Dambury to head over his own keeper and give FC Tokyo an equaliser.
   The winner came just two minutes into extra time from blond-haired Brazilian midfielder Reginaldo Vital, whose low cross-shot from the right flew in at the near post.

   Jubilo Iwata, the defending league champions, moved into third place on 15 points thanks to two more goals from Masashi Nakayama, taking his tally for the season to 12 in 21 games and for his career to 102 in 182 appearances. The 32-year-old World Cup marksman had become only the second player to reach the 100-goal landmark in the league when scoring twice in a 3-2 victory away to Vissel Kobe last Wednesday, and two more helped see off JEF United Ichihara 3-1 at Iwata Stadium.

   FC Tokyo are fourth on 14, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Nagoya Grampus Eight fifth and sixth, both on 13. Sanfrecce beat struggling Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0 with a long-range strike 10 minutes from time from captain Kenichi Uemura, while Grampus came back twice to beat first-stage champions Yokohama F Marinos 3-2 at Nagoya. South Korea's World Cup captain in France, Yoo Sang Chul, with his 14th goal in 15 appearances this season, and national team midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura both gave Yokohama the lead, but new Brazilian signing Ueslei and then Tetsuya Okayama pulled Grampus level. With three minutes to go, Yugoslav veteran Dragan Stojkovic fired the winner into the far corner from the right side of the box.

   Two of the three Grampus players fired by the club for disciplinary reasons at the beginning of the month made their debut for Kyoto Purple Sanga--and had a dramatic impact on the relegation battle at home to Kawasaki Frontale. Trailing 1-0 at the break, Kyoto manager Gert Engels sent on midfielders Shigeyoshi Mochizuki and Takashi Hirano and saw them make a major contribution to a 3-1 win, with two goals for Brazilian striker Regis. The defeat left Frontale on 12 points, four adrift of Kyoto, after 22 of the 30 league games.

   Vissel Kobe pulled off a crucial 2-1 win away to Verdy Kawasaki to climb out of trouble and give manager Ryoichi Kawakatsu a welcome three points against his former club. JEF United occupy the "safe" 14th spot on 23 points, seven ahead of Kyoto, while Vissel and Verdy both have 25 and look to be out of trouble. The bottom two go down when the points from both stages are combined.