RECAP: WEEKEND ASIAN ROUNDUP
Daniel Schmidt and Vegalta Sendai came away with a big win over FC Tokyo to narrow the gap for a Champions League spot while Mix Diskerud and Ulsan Hyundai returned to winning ways in Korea.
A fortunate own goal was all Vegalta Sendai needed as they held on to a 1-0 over FC Tokyo to sit just one point behind the capital team for the third AFC Asian Champions League spot.
Sendai have been flying high in the past weeks as they have avoided the dreaded mid-season slump that they suffered last year to remain in the top half of the standings. The league title may not be in reach, but their push to qualify for next season's Champions League has been quite impressive.
If Sendai want any chance to play in Asia's top competition they will have to beat every team along the way to keep the pressure on FC Tokyo.
With the weekend's game against they did just that.
Schmidt was called into action early in the first half when a blistering shot from Yojiro Takahagi forced the netminder to make a finger-tip save that led ball to crash of the post.
Tokyo were the more aggressive side in the first half as they tested Sendai's back line, but could not find the back of the net as both teams headed to their locker rooms scoreless.
The host started the second half pushing for a goal and they were rewarded in the 49th minute thanks to Tokyo's Keigo Higashi. A cross from the right side deflected of the winger's leg and the ball found its way past goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi to give Sendai the lead.
It was Tokyo now with their back against the wall as they pushed for an equalizer, but it would not come as Sendai held on for a crucial win.
Sendai now sits in fourth place in the J1 League standings with 41 points. With five games left in the season they will need every point they can get to overtake Tokyo and capture that last Champions League spot.
Elsewhere in the J1 League, it has been rough going for Leo Osaki and star-studded Vissel Kobe as they suffered a 2-1 loss to Gamba Osaka at the Noevir Stadium, sending them to their third straight defeat.
There have been high expectations for Kobe as ownership decided to break the bank by signing world class players such as Lukas Podolski last season followed by former Spanish international Andres Iniesta over the summer in hopes of challenging for the league title.
Despite some stellar play from Iniesta since returning to the team from the 2018 World Cup, things have not gone to plan as Kobe sits in the middle of the standings struggling to make a push for the Champions League.
They entered the weekend facing a Gamba Osaka team that is a fight of their own as they sit in the relegation zone.
Osaki, who made the move to Kobe over the summer, was in the starting lineup for the contest.
Kobe would open the scoring in the 35th minute when Iniesta sent a pass into the area for Kyogo Furuhashi, who steered his shot past goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.
However, the host could not hold on to their lead as the game entered the second half. Gamba would level the score in the 52nd minute when Jae-Suk Oh's cross from the right would find Shu Kurata and his volleyed effort hit the back of the net.
The visitors took the lead for good in the 68th minute when Kurate turned provider as his low cross from the left was tapped in by teammate Eui-Jo Hwang.
Kobe have dug themselves into a hole and will need to change their fortunes around as well as have a lot of help if they want to challenge for a Champions League spot. They are currently in eighth place in the standings with 36 points, six points away from the top three.
Two second-half goals helped Ulsan Hyundai to a 2-0 win over the Pohang Steelers at the Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium to further solidify their place in the top half of the standings as the K League heads towards the championship round.
Diskerud took his place in the midfield for the Tigers as they have now won four of their last five games.
It seems like the Norwegian-American midfielder is enjoying his loan spell with the team as according to reports he has exceeded expectations.
While Ulsan appear to have their spot safe for the league's championship round, they faced a Pohang Steelers team who are still in a fight to secure at least one of the final three spots still up for grabs.
Pohang started strongly with several chances to open the scoring. Ulsan had a chance themselves just after the half-hour mark when Diskerud fired a shot from distance, but it sailed over the crossbar.
The first half ended scoreless, but Ulsan would turn the tide in the second as the finally broke the deadlock.
Junior Negao found the back of the net in the 66th minute when he collected a pass from teammate Seung-Gyu Han and the Brazilian fired his shot past Pohang goalkeeper Hyeon-Mu Kang.
The host put the game to bed in the 85nd minute when Keun-Ho Lee pounced on a fumbled save by Kang to double their lead.
Ulsan sits in third place in the K League 1 standings with 48 points.
Jonny Campbell and Phnom Penh Crown were on the wrong end of narrow 3-2 loss to Asia Europe University in C-League action. PPCFC sits in fifth place in the standings with 30 points.