Anderson Lopes hit a clinical brace as Yokohama F Marinos came from behind to edge fellow title hopefuls Kashima Antlers 2-1 in the J-League first division on Sunday.
Reigning champions Marinos entered having lost two with a draw against teams near the bottom of the table, but a vital win kept them a point behind leaders Vissel Kobe, who are on 55 points, with six fixtures left to play for both sides.
Marinos will welcome Kobe at Nissan Stadium on Friday.
"We always expect a tough game playing away to Kashima, and it was again the case today," Lopes said after their win at Kashima Stadium. "But we came in strongly determined to win, and it's a huge victory heading into the late stage of the season."
It was Kashima who came flying out, however, with forward Yuki Kakita's header off a right-wing cross forcing a save from Marinos keeper Jun Ichimori before defender Naomichi Ueda sent a flying header just over the bar from the resulting corner in the opening three minutes.
The opener arrived on the quarter of an hour from another corner, with striker Yuma Suzuki looping over the wrong-footed Ichimori, who ought to have done better with the ball going in near the center of the goal.
Marinos struggled to build from the back but leveled against the run of play in the 34th minute when Jan Matheus' cross from a short corner found Lopes, who stuck his leg out to side-foot home.
After finishing the half on the back foot, the visitors upped their pace after the break and turned things around in the 50th minute. Matheus' shot from a tight angle forced a one-handed save from Kashima keeper Tomoki Hayakawa, with Lopes volleying the rebound home low past the keeper with his weaker right foot.
Nam Tae Hee headed straight at Hayakawa off Matheus' cross in the 61st minute, while the home team failed to take their chance to level two minutes later when a loose ball dropped for Suzuki just outside the box. But his goal-bound effort was diverted away for a corner thanks to a block by Marinos defender Ryotaro Tsunoda.
Marinos substitute Ryo Miyaichi dragged his effort inches wide in the 80th minute before a stoppage-time drama saw Shoma Doi's early cross from the right drop at the far post for Suzuki, who stretched his leg out but could only steer his shot onto the post for Kashima. A chaotic finale then had Miyaichi blasting over when one-on-one with Hayakawa, but Marinos held on for a crucial win as Kashima lost their first game in five.
"Kobe are top of the league and really strong. But we'll have the home support and play to win whatever it takes," Lopes said.