An injury-time goal by Sagan Tosu forward Yohei Toyoda left Cerezo Osaka in the bottom two and facing an increasingly difficult task to avoid relegation from J1.
The 29-year-old had been kept in check by Cerezo’s defence, but with a precious away point within their grasp, the visitors switched off and allowed Toyoda to score with a free header which lifted his team into third place.
Still smarting from their Emperor’s Cup defeat by J2 side JEF United in midweek, Cerezo had held their own in an even contest and threatened to snatch a victory five minutes before Toyoda’s strike, only for Ryo Nagai to misfire with his left foot when well positioned.
Therein lays Cerezo’s key problem. Coach Yuji Okuma left out Diego Forlan and Cacau following Wednesday night’s defeat and instead started with Nagai and Kenyu Sugimoto, but still there was no end product.
Nagai had gone close in the first half, after a nice move involving Sugimoto and the elegant midfielder, Aria Jasuru Hasegawa, ended with his attempted flick which went narrowly wide.
Hasegawa is always looking to take the fight to the opposition and can be a threat when carrying the ball forward, but he also fluffed his lines with a decent early chance.
Having started the season with ambitions to occupy the same territory as Sagan at the top end of the table, Cerezo set about trying to prove their real worth and enjoyed more of the ball in the first half.
The chances continued to come after the interval, the tireless Sugimoto over-running the ball when he was through on goal and Kim Sung-joon squandering a simple chance when the ball fell kindly on his right foot.
On came Cacau, the former Germany international who scored Cerezo’s last league goal against Urawa Reds in September, but he too missed a header and then shot straight at the keeper when he should have done better.
Pushing gamely for the three points, Cerezo were leaving space at the back and, having gone close through Kota Mizunuma, Sagan sensed victory.
It was delivered at the death when Naoya Kikuchi punted the ball upfield to find Kim Min-woo in space. He fed substitute Ryuji Bando, whose teasing cross from the left caught Cerezo keeper Kim Jin-hyeon rooted to the spot and presented Toyoda with the simplest of close-range headers.
“The game had gone as planned but it was decided by that play in the final minute,” said a visibly disappointed Okuma afterwards.
Cerezo have five games left to save themselves, starting with Wednesday’s home game against bottom team Tokushima Vortis. A must-win game, if ever there was one.