A Sho Naruoka goal ended Albirex Niigata's five-game winless streak in a much-needed victory against Cerezo Osaka on Saturday.
The northern Japan club entered the encounter at Denka Big Swan Stadium under the glare of media scrutiny, with star striker Kengo Kawamata absent from the bench for a fourth straight game and reportedly demanding a transfer.
On a muggy 31-degree evening with humidity exceeding 60 per cent, both teams displayed attacking propensity but were unable to create any solid chances.
The hosts gained control as time went on, with midfielder Kosuke Yamamoto creating chances up the sides and forcing an early Cerezo defensive substitution as Toru Araiba replaced Yosuke Maruhashi.
After the first half ended scoreless, both managers made changes in the 51st minute, with Naruoka replacing Tatsuya Tanaka and Cerezo's Ryo Nagai coming on for Diego Forlan. Just five minutes later, Hideya Okamoto's low cross found Naruoka in the box, with the 30-year-old needing two attempts to get the ball past goalkeeper Kim Jin-Hyeon.
A stagnant Cerezo managed to create several scoring opportunities in the final 20 minutes of play, but all were stopped by Albirex's determined defenders as time elapsed. After three straight 0-1 losses, Masaaki Yanagishita's side were delighted to see the scoreline go their way as the referee blew the final whistle.
Albirex rise to 10th in the J-League standings as a result of the win, as Cerezo fall to 16th place and officially enter the relegation zone. Marco Pezzaiuoli's team are still without a victory since the World Cup break and are enduring a seven-game league winless streak overall.