Omiya Ardija's battling performance against Kashima Antlers earned them a mouthwatering clash with Saitama rivals Urawa Reds in the Emperor's Cup semi-final at Sendagaya on Thursday afternoon - the fifth occasion in which the two have squared up to each other during the course of what has been an amazing year for the Mighty Squirrels.
And as had been the case against Toninho Cerezo's Antlers, it was a more or less full strength opposition that Ardija were up against, while Toshiya Miura's XI had something of a makeshift look to it: Satoshi Yokoyama was eventually selected ahead of Yusuke Shimada as a replacement for the suspended Chikara Fujimoto and captain Seiichiro Okuno came in for Kazuyoshi Mikami to partner Yosuke Kataoka in the centre of defence, Daisuke Tomita again moving back out to the left.
Preparing for kick-off
The match began somewhat as expected, with Reds having most of the possession via the likes of Makoto Hasebe in midfield as well as the front pairing of Tomislav Maric and the experienced Masayuki Okano, Robson Ponte too contributing to the fast-flowing Urawa play. But Okuno was again marshalling the Omiya defence effectively and he ensured that in the final third, the Reds front players were denied space and time.
Yet another injury to the luckless Naoto Sakurai as early as the twelfth minute necessitated a change of approach for the Squirrels up front, as Manabu Wakabayashi came on to partner Hiroshi Morita, although chances for the men in orange were few and far between. 23 minutes in, a Robson Ponte free kick from the left hand side was met by Maric ahead of his marker and Urawa were 1-0 ahead, seemingly in control of the match.
Kataoka and friends in celebratory mood
Just three minutes later, however, Omiya stunned the Reds support when a free kick of their own was nudged to one side by Tatsunori Hisanaga for Kataoka to lash the ball inside Ryota Tsuzuki's right hand post for an equaliser. The game stayed level for the remainder of the first half and it was Urawa who retained the majority of possession after the re-start, Nobuhisa Yamada and Alex Santos looking dangerous as they went close to taking the lead once again - and in the 62nd minute, a Santos cross was nodded over a hapless Hiroki Aratani by Hasebe to make it 2-1.
Ardija once again tried to fight their way back into the match, with Miura throwing on Shin Kanazawa and Shimada in place of the Yokoyama and the distinctly unfortunate Jun Marques Davidson, but on this occasion it seemed as if Urawa would be able to weather the storm and hold on for a win. With the ninety minutes almost up, the Squirrels launched a final desperate assualt on the Reds goal from Aratani and in the resulting scramble, Morita competed with Tsuzuki for the ball and Tomita headed it over the line for a sensational equaliser.
And so the match now moved into extra time - but the massive effort made by the Omiya side to haul themselves back into the tie was to take its toll almost immediately, a loss of concentration enabling Urawa captain Yamada space to curl home a shot from the edge of the area just five minutes in. Shortly afterwards, with Omiya again hurling everything at the Reds defence, Hasebe and Maric broke quickly from the edge of their own area and it was Hasebe who notched up the fourth with a great run and finish to knock Omiya Ardija out of the competition and so put an end to the 2005 campaign for the Mighty Squirrels.
The Squirrels defend a Reds corner
"We really wanted the result today, so it's very frustrating to have lost the match," said goal hero Yosuke Kataoka afterwards. "There was a lot of focus and a lot of hard work from all the players on keeping things tight defensively and everyone really appreciates that. At the first goal, though, it was my job to mark Maric and it was my mistake that he scored.
"I need to practice that kind of situation more in the future, but it made me very determined to help the team get back on level terms, and the free kick was a great moment. I think we've learned a lot over the course of the season, about the strengths you need to compete with the top teams - and we've done okay, without being satisfied, we want to keep going next year."
Daisuke Tomita agreed with this assessment of both the individual game and the season overall. "We weren't under that much pressure in the first half apart from at set pieces, and Wakabayashi having to come on so early in some senses made things simpler for us in terms of how we approached our attacking play," he commented. "Kataoka's been practicing his free kicks and it was a cracking shot that he scored with. After half time, we were again just trying to keep things under control at free kicks and corners.
"As for my goal, well, I owe it to Morita, he did really well - and it was doubly frustrating, then, to go 3-2 down so soon after the start of extra time. But I think that to be able to fight our way back into the game twice shows how we've progressed this year. It can be difficult to maintain your motivation after the league campaign has finished, but we kept on going throughout these Emperor's Cup ties and have achieved a lot: to be able to stay up in J1 is a massive thing for our club. And as a team and individually, we haven't finished growing yet."
Blimey, it's cold
But the last word must surely go to coach Toshiya Miura, reviewing a truly thrilling year for his team. "This is the fifth time we've played Reds this year, so we knew the kinds of problems we'd face and that it would be a really tough match. We were especially concerned to be on our guard against and at set pieces, but then the injury to Sakurai so early was a blow to us.
"Having two bigger strikers like Wakabayashi and Morita gave us an advantage in terms of winning the ball in the air, though, and we were able to make modifications to the way we played to exploit that. But looking back over the season, we've managed to stay in J1, we've got to the last eight of the Nabisco Cup and the last four of the Emperor's Cup - that's not a bad record, and the players have bonded together to form a good group. We lost today, but we feel proud of our achievements this year and are looking forward to 2006."
Thanks to Omiya Fan and Jay for photos. Click here to launch a stream of first half highlights in Windows Media Player; and here for the rest of the match
For the first time ever, Omiya Ardija participated on Christmas Eve in the last eight of the Emperor's Cup, matched up with a full-strength Kashima Antlers side desperate to bring to an end in style the reign of coach Toninho Cerezo. And although Antlers fielded all their stars at a chilly Sendai Stadium, such as Alex Mineiro and Mitsuo Ogasawara, the Squirrels in contrast had something of a weakened look to their line-up, with Toninho back in Brazil and skipper Seiichiro Okuno missing due to a lack of recent training, as a result of his continuing work towards achieving coaching certification.
This meant a back four of Takuro Nishimura and Kazuyoshi Mikami on each side, while Yosuke Kataoka and Daisuke Tomita provided a distinctly unfamiliar partnership in the middle. Naoto Sakurai and Hiroshi Morita led the front line, Manabu Wakabayashi sitting things out on the bench. And so the stage was set for a match up of individual skill against organisational strategy, the Squirrels being particularly mindful of the damage caused by Antlers in scoring early goals in both of the league matches between the two sides.
It was therefore something of a surprise that the clearer chances in the opening 45 minutes were in fact created by Ardija, who although playing mostly on the back foot were always looking to move forward as quickly as possible whenever the opportunity presented itself, Tatsunori Hisanaga's long-range shot in the fourth minute setting the tone. At the other end, Kataoka and Tomita coped well with the speed of Masashi Motoyama and Alex Mineiro.
And at a packed Sendai Stadium...
Always alert to the idea of setting up attacks, the Squirrels' next half-chance came on seventeen minutes, when a swift break down the left by Sakurai led to a shot from Morita that was saved by Hitoshi Sogahata in the Kashima goal. But the main source of opportunities was good work from overlapping fullbacks Mikami and especially Nishimura, who nearly opened the scoring with what would have been a wonder goal in the 24th minute when he ran from around the half-way line but was robbed of possession when about to shoot. Omiya nevertheless kept things solid at the back to hold at bay their more illustrious opponents and the score remained 0-0 at half-time.
Antlers started the second period brightly, Alex Mineiro going close in the early stages although Kataoka deserves credit for preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity for the dangerous Brazilian forward. Tomita did the same on 54 minutes to stop Motoyama's shot and just a minute later, the Squirrels' defensive resilience paid dividends as Fujimoto intercepted a stray ball the ball on the half-way line and, with Omiya moving rapidly out of defence, a great through pass fed Morita, who shook off the attentions of the Kashima defence and fired it past Sogahata for a 1-0 lead to the men in white.
Hiroshi Morita, goal hero
Toninho Cerezo responded by replacing defender Toru Araiba with international forward Takayuki Suzuki as Antlers increased the pressure on the Ardija goal. But Hiroki Aratani and his defence held firm, assisted in the closing stages by Shin Kanazawa, thrown on by Toshiya Miura in place of Sakurai - and Omiya held on to triumph over one of J1's power houses and so proceed to the last four of the Emperor's Cup for the first time in the club's history.
"It's a big thing for us to beat Antlers after the two defeats in the league against them," commented Miura afterwards. "They put out a strong side and it was our attitude that helped us to win the game - we didn't have any fear of their aggression and we knew we could keep our discipline and keep a clean sheet. It was a team performance rather than one for lots of individuals."
"That was a good win - and it was a relief," Yosuke Kataoka said. "It's so good to have come out of a game like that without having conceded, especially as other players had to take the responsibility normally picked up by Okuno and Toninho. As for my playing in central defence, it wasn't something we really talked about a lot beforehand. We just kept things simple and played to our strengths. Tomita and Nishimura made fantastic contributions and because it was a real team effort, we felt confident and as if we could cope without too many major problems. We're in the semis now, but it's our aim now to go as far as possible in the competition."
We did 'em lads, we did 'em
But as the club now look forward to Thursday's historic semi-final against deadly rivals Urawa Reds - without, it should be reported, the suspended Chikara Fujimoto - the last word must go to goal hero Hiroshi Morita. "Kashima are a strong side, so for us to be able to beat them is fantastic - and it was a really tough match. We had to be defensive, be patient and wait for our chance to come, working our way into the match like that.
"Even when they were putting us under a lot of pressure, though, the defence held firm and we didn't look like cracking. That's what enabled us to win the game, the level of defensive organisation. As for the goal, it was based on Chikara's usual great timing and he played a brilliant ball through for me to run on to - we weren't able to make that many other decent scoring opportunities, to it was important to make that one count. And now we're in a position where we can look forward to another Saitama derby game in the semi-final."
Some clips from this game can be seen at the SportsNavi site, here. Thanks to Jay for the photo
Following the end of the J1 season, Omiya Ardija returned to action against Nagoya Grampus 8 at Shimizu S-Pulse's Nihondaira Stadium on a windy Saturday afternoon, both teams having squeezed past lower division opposition in the last round of the competition. But since Omiya beat Kyoto and Nagoya overcame JFL side Alo's Hokuriku, the league campaign finished with Ardija and Grampus making sure of their top flight status and the two squads could be expected to approach the match in confident enough mood.
Returning to the first team, Tomoyasu Ando
The Squirrels lined up with Tomoyasu Ando making a rare appearance in goal in place of Hiroki Aratani, while Toninho partnered Jun Marques Davidson in central midfield supporting a front pair of Naoto Sakurai and Hiroshi Morita. It was Omiya who started the brighter of the two sides, Chikara Fujimoto immediately looking dangerous with his passing, touch and quick thinking; but problems were also caused for the Nagoya back four by the overlapping pair of Takuro Nishimura and Kazuyoshi Mikami.
Nishimura came closest to scoring early on, as he combined with Morita but Eiji Kawashima in the Nagoya goal was able to make the save. But Ardija remained in control of the game, Daisuke Tomita going close with a header from Fujimoto's fifteenth-minute corner and Sakurai's follow-up being cleared off the line. Grampus, meanwhile, appeared to offer little in the way of attacking threat beyond the occasional counter in what turned into a quiet first period.
After the interval, Omiya continued their positive play, using space in the midfield well and creating a number of chances that nevertheless went begging, Nishimura and Fujimoto both very near to getting their names on the scoresheet. The match remained at 0-0, though, and Omiya had nothing to show for their dominance as Nagoya started to move into the game more.
Keisuke Honda forced a fine save from Ando ten minutes into the second half and Squirrels coach Toshiya Miura made a tactical change shortly afterwards when he threw on Masato Saito for Marques, in an attempt to help Omiya to retain possession for longer periods and inject some leadership and experience into the key central area of the team. A sense of balance and composure seemed to return to the Ardija play, but although Morita and Toninho had further opportunities to score, the scoreline remained 0-0 at full time.
Naoto Sakurai gets a shot in early in the second half
And Miura played a positive card during the brief break before extra time started, withdrawing Mikami in favour of striker Satoshi Yokoyama. Play in the last thirty minutes moved rapidly from end to end but it was Omiya who deservedly made the breakthrough with just a couple of minutes remaining of the first period, when Sakurai dribbled into the box and crossed from the right for Fujimoto to dive and head home.
Just when it seemed that the Squirrels had done enough to earn their first-ever place in the last eight of the Emperor's Cup, Naoshi Nakamura seconds later took advantage of slack defending from a Nagoya corner to make it one apiece - and it appeared as if a penalty shoot-out was to be the only way to separate the teams. Six minutes into the second period of extra time, however, substitute Yosuke Kataoka played the ball in for Toninho to send in a beautifully accurate header and grab a winner for Ardija, sending then through to face Kashima Antlers in two weeks' time.
Toninho heads Omiya into the last eight
"We've reached the quarter finals and that's something the club has never done before, so the players can be proud of that," said coach Miura afterwards. "I thought we imposed ourselves on the game, knowing that a draw wasn't good enough and the game was there to be won. We did pretty well in the first half but I decided to out on Saito to add a bit of stability when Nagoya seemed to be getting more into the match. The first goal was a great bit of skill from Sakurai, but we went to sleep a little bit for the equaliser. I was very pleased with the winner because that was really what we deserved from the match today."
Chikara Fujimoto celebrates putting the Squirrels 1-0 ahead
"I got pretty tired over the course of 120 minutes," acknowledged Chikara Fujimoto, "but we never really thought we'd lose the game, knowing that if we could keep up the attacks, the goals would come. Kashima will probably start the quarter final as favourites, but we're a motivated side, looking to win the game and anything can happen on the day. There'll be a quieter two weeks of preparation beforehand, but we can recharge our batteries and go into that match refreshed and with no injuries."
What a nine months it has been. Omiya Ardija's first season in J1 has seen the club stun the world of Japanese football with some amazing results, fall into a slump that threatened to see them drop back down to J2 again before levelling out to finish thirteenth. In the end, the Squirrels were better than a sufficiently large number of other clubs to survive, but more than that, they gave a bloody nose to far more illustrious rivals, with wins against Marinos, Urawa and a famous double against eventual champions Gamba springing to mind as truly remarkable achievements by Toshiya Miura and his players.
Omiya Fan's view
But the campaign that started in Osaka in March finished at the Saitama Stadium against Marinos on Saturday - both sides, in fact, lodged in mid-table security, Omiya having achieved their target for the year while Marinos fans will want to put 2005 firmly behind them. With Ardija suffering once again from something of an injury crisis - which saw Leandro, Manabu Wakabayashi and Masato Saito ruled out, along with the suspended Jun Marques Davidson - it was the returning Naoto Sakurai who led the line up front with Hiroshi Morita, Toninho partnering Tatsunori Hisanaga in midfield.
Chikara Fujimoto in particular started brightly, pushing and probing on both sides of the Marinos defence. Sixteen minutes in, however, it was Sakurai who broke into the Marinos area with a delightful first touch and got near to an attempt on goal, but he was hustled off the ball at the vital moment and the chance went begging.
Chikara Fujimoto, Player of the Year?
The visitors looked dangerous through Dutra and Gral's combination play down the left hand side, which caused problems for Hiroki Aratani in the 25th minute, but eight minutes later it was Omiya who went in front. Tuto fed Hisanaga, whose speedy run into the box was brought to an abrupt end by Eisuke Nakanishi and it was Tuto who then stepped up and slotted the penalty past Tetsuya Enomoto for the opener. After the interval, Omiya went close when a Sakurai shot just went over the bar after good work from Hisanaga and then on the hour, Morita had a shot that hit the woodwork as the Squirrels sought to press home their advantage.
Daisuke Tomita puts the Marinos defence under pressure
At this stage, the extent of Marinos' ambition must have been to get a point out of the game, but referee Akio Okutani's double intervention changed the atmosphere of the ancounter when he sent off Yokohama defender Ryuji Kawai and Tuto in quick succession. The increased space seemed to give Marinos extra energy and both Dutra and Hayuma Tanaka put Ardija under pressure with their overlapping runs down the flanks.
Seiichiro Okuno was dominant at the back for the men in orange, but with 72 minutes on the clock an unsighted Aratani let Yoshiharu Ueno's effort past him to give Marinos the equaliser. Yokohama then pushed forward in search of a winner but Omiya were not to be defeated in front of their home fans and the game finished up 1-1.
Yoshiharu Ueno celebrates his equaliser. What a bad, bad man
Coach Toshiya Miura said afterwards, "I have to thank the fans for coming to support us this year. There have been some painful times, but the supporters helped us to overcome those periods of the season and they've encouraged us all the time. Today we wanted to close this chapter of the club's history with a win and we started out with a 4-1-4-1 system to exploit Marinos' formation of paying with three at the back.
"But after half an hour, we reverted to 4-4-2 because we really weren't causing them enough problems in defence. Towards the end of the first half and then early in the second half, we did put them under pressure and were going for the second goal - if we'd scored that, we'd have won the game."
Omiya Ardija’s season-saving winning run came to an end at the Big Eye Stadium, Oita, on Saturday, with form team Trinita returning to winning ways after successive draws against title challengers Cerezo Osaka and Kashima Antlers. As a result, the Squirrels dropped back to thirteenth spot in the J1 table, Albirex Niigata leapfrogging over them thanks to a 1-0 win at wildly inconsistent Nagoya Grampus 8.
The Mighty Squirrels line up before kick-off
In the absence of Leandro through injury, Tuto made a return to the team alongside Hiroshi Morita, whose recent fine displays as substitute put him back in the starting line-up and relegated Manabu Wakabayashi to the bench. Shin Kanazawa also came in to replace Masato Saito in the centre of midfield, with the suspended Daisuke Tomita making way for former Oita man Kazuyoshi Mikami on the left of the defence.
Both teams looked lively enough at the start but on sixteen minutes, disaster struck for the Squirrels as Takayuki Yoshida knocked in a simple ball from the right and Masato Yamazaki took advantage of a slip-up in the defence to give Hiroki Aratani no chance. It was a potential major blow for Omiya, but Miura’s men are made of sterner stuff than earlier in the campaign and just eight minutes later were back on level terms.
A quick exchange of passes in the midfield fed Morita on the edge of the Oita box and a delightful touch from the big man fed Tatsunori Hisanaga, advancing on the left to clip the ball past Shusaku Nishikawa for a lovely equaliser. Following the Ardija goal, the first half was evenly balanced with both sides aiming for a second score of the afternoon, but it was nevertheless still 1-1 at the interval.
Yasunari Hiraoka on the defensive
Toshiya Miura then replaced the injured Kanazawa with Yasunari Hiraoka and slotted Toninho next to Jun Marques Davidson in midfield and as the second period got underway, Omiya seemed to be coping well with the enforced re-shuffle and the twin dangers of the Trinita front line, Magno Alves and Yamazaki.
Fifteen minutes in, Morita and Tuto in quick succession missed opportunities to put Ardija in front when right through on the keeper, but the chances went begging and Oita turned up the heat. With 77 minutes on the clock, a quick through pass released Teppei Nishiyama in yards of space and again Aratani in the Omiya goal was left totally exposed as Nishiyama made it 2-1.
Teppei Nishiyama rounds Hiroki Aratani to score the winner
The substitution of Mikami for Wakabayashi appeared to provide a new attacking focus for the Squirrels, but the mysterious dismissal on 81 minutes of Jun Marques Davidson for a second bookable offence effectively condemned Omiya to defeat. But it was a gutsy performance under difficult circumstances against one the current top sides in J1.
"It has to be said that the pitch was in a really bad state today and it was tough to get a clean connection on the ball,” Toshiya Miura said afterwards. “That meant it was a question of keeping things simple and I think the overall standard of the match was less good than the recent games we’ve played in. We seemed to be a bit lacking in energy and that was something I tried to convey to the players at half-time – to get them to go out and play with more pace. It worked for the first few minutes but we couldn’t make any breakthrough.”
Kazuyoshi Mikami clears against his old club
Hiroshi Morita added, “It was a disappointing result, very frustrating. Too often Oita were beating us to any knockdowns - and that helped them to get the better of us, especially in the first half. I had a couple of chances – a header from a free kick in the first half and one point where I was one-on-one with the keeper in the second half – but just couldn’t make anything come of them. It was good to get the assist, though: a quick little flick to Hisanaga, his first touch was great and it was a nice goal.”
A great day in the history of Omiya Ardija had a stunning conclusion in round 32 of this year's J1 campaign, as the Squirrels completed a spectacular treble whammy: firstly, Tatsunori Hisanaga's late header confirmed the club's J1 status for 2006, second it enabled Toshiya Miura's men to complete a memorable double over title challengers Gamba Osaka and thirdly, the old Omiya Koen stadium went out in style, commemorated with a 1-0 win in its final match before renovation - a match played out, moreover, in front of the largest-ever crowd for a game there of 10,623.
Ardija's fourth league win on the trot saw the team leapfrog Nagoya Grampus 8 and Albirex Niigata in the standings to lie in a respectable twelfth place, the increasingly distant possibility of a relegation play-off spot banished by Kashiwa Reysol's failure to get more than a goalless draw at Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Sub Satoshi Yokoyama battles for possession with Fernandinho
Unusually, coach Miura picked the same side as had won against Vissel Kobe at the weekend, sticking with Leandro and Manabu Wakabayashi up front, while Masato Saito partnered Jun Marques Davidson in central midfield. But the focus of the game rapidly became one of solid Omiya defence, as the league's top scorers immediately put Hiroki Aratani's goal under pressure via the likes of 31-goal striker Araujo and Fernandinho, the clear intention being that Gamba put behind them their recent slump in form by grabbing an early lead.
But the Ardija back line held its nerve and never looked rattled, the defence working tirelessly to deny space to the ever-dangerous Gamba strikeforce. The Squirrels' own attacking options were more limited, relying unsurprisingly on quick breaks and Chikara Fujimoto set pieces, although Leandro had a one-on-one with keeper Yosuke Fujigaya in the twelfth minute following a mistake by Sidiclei that came to nothing.
Unusually, Toshiya Miura looking a happy bunny
It was, however, out of necessity a strong defensive performance in the first half from Ardija, as Gamba had the better of possession - but the Squirrels continued to hold firm and it was still all-square at the interval. The second half began in similar fashion, Araujo and substitute Toshihiro Matsushita going close in the early stages, with keeper Aratani demonstrating fine form.
Again Omiya concentrated their own efforts on defence and attempting to hit Gamba on the break, Fujimoto and Wakabayashi on occasions combining well but finding Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and co. in tenacious mood. With Leandro seemingly picking up an injury, both he and Wakabayashi were replaced by Hiroshi Morita and Satoshi Yokoyama as Miura attempted to get more of a positive grip on the game - and Morita as a target man playing with his back to goal certainly proved a handful for the Gamba back line.
Cheeky Chikara Fujimoto on the attack
With just three minutes remaining came the moment all the home fans had been longing for, as Fujimoto got the better of Miyamoto down the left-hand side and swung a delicious ball into the middle for Tatsunori Hisanaga, making a late dash from midfield to the penalty spot to send a looping header past Fujigaya to give Omiya a sensational winner. And fittingly, it was wing king Fujimoto who best summed up the tremendous achievement of having won the game, when he said, "This was the best type of performance, really, where collective organisation and individual skill come together for the benefit of the team: and Gamba were beaten by that. We've stayed up in J1 and succeeding in that target has brought us closer together as a group, too."
"It's great that we've managed to get a result in the last match at Omiya Koen and at the same time achieve our minimum aim for the season, which obviously was to stay up," said a cheery Toshiya Miura. "As for the match, the first challenge was to stop them scoring and their attack is very strong, so we started out with an organisational plan to help the defence to cope with that threat.
"We were generally pretty successful in cutting off their supply lines and restricting the amount of time that the Gamba front players had possession of the ball. After half-time, we didn't want to take too many risks, but at the same time it was important to increase our own attacking play and aim to create more chances of our own. It was important to stay patient, of course, and we scored at just the right time."
Tatsunori Hisanaga celebrates his historic winning goal
The last word, however, should go to goal hero Hisanaga. "It's a real relief to have it confirmed that we're staying up... Gamba's attack is the best in the league and we had to counter their individual skill with our tactics and workrate - it was a very tough game. But because we've got this little winning run going, it meant we had the confidence to approach the game correctly. That's the primary factor that enabled us to win this game.
"So we managed to get to half-time without conceding and feeling pretty strong, thinking that we could go on and create a chance or two of our own. Then Chikara [Fujimoto] beat Miyamoto, crossed it and I managed to direct my header okay... and I just ran to the fans, it was a fantastic feeling to score that goal, especially knowing what an important day it is in the history of the club." So after the trials and tribulations of what has been an unpredictable first campaign in the top flight - encapsulated, perhaps, by the stunning departure mid-season of top scorer Christian - the Mighty Squirrels have succeeded in their fundamental aim for the year. Because Omiya are staying up.
Omiya Ardija remain in 14th spot in the J1 table, following a crucial round of matches on Sunday afternoon that saw Squirrels' opponents Vissel Kobe relegated to J2 - not to mention Tokyo Verdy 1969 crashing to a 4-1 defeat at Urawa Reds that makes it very difficult now for the Emperor's Cup-holders to get out of the second automatic relegation spot. The key issue for Ardija, however, realistically is still that of avoiding the play-off position that accompanies sixteenth place, and Shimizu S-Pulse beating Kashiwa Reysol with a last-minute goal means that the Sun Kings are looking very likely to have to take part in the play-off for the second year running.
Despite taking the lead in the opening seconds of the game through Reinaldo, Kashiwa's defeat means that they essentially need to win at least two of their remaining three fixtures to be in with even a chance of avoiding having to play against most probably either Ventforet Kofu or Vegalta Sendai in order to remain in J1 next season. With tricky-looking away games at Sanfrecce Hiroshima and championship-chasing Kashima Antlers, though, this appears beyond them - even putting to one side the fact that their poor recent form has seen them pick up just a single point from the last available fifteen.
Don't much like your hair either, Takuro Nishimura
All of this actually leaves Omiya requiring four points to make absolutely sure of their J1 status, and in all honesty it is questionable whether the Squirrels or Shimizu S-Pulse are the likelier bet to finish fifteenth, given that S-Pulse host rock-bottom Vissel themselves on Wednesday evening in an eminently winnable encounter. But as things stand, Toshiya Miura and his squad look as if they will be able to achieve their objective of survival for this, their inaugural season in Japan's top division, something that a month ago was looking pretty improbable. Hard-fought wins against Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus 8, however, put an end to the team's dreadful run of seven consecutive defeats (three goals scored, fourteen conceded) and injected some self-belief into the players right when it was required.
And on Sunday they travelled to the Kobe Wing Stadium, knowing that a further three points would ease the pressure considerably. Matters of team selection were complicated for coach Miura by the news that he was without Naoto Sakurai and Tuto up front through injury, and that young Brazilian striker Leandro had been complaining of a pain in his ankle during the later part of the week leading up to the match.
But Leandro was pronounced fit to play and teamed up with Emperor's Cup goal hero Manabu Wakabayashi for the first time, Hiroshi Morita and Satoshi Yokoyama having dropped down the pecking order and therefore taking their places on the bench.
Joint-top scorer Toninho gets in among the Kobe defence
What with Vissel being in such a dangerous position as far as staying in J1 was concerned, it was no surprise that the home side came out fighting, aiming to get the ball as quickly as possible to Ryuji Bando and Keisuke Kurihara up front. The first half-chance for Ardija came on fourteen minutes, when Leandro's shot was off target following good work from Takuro Nishimura.
The match then became bogged down in the midfield, with a large number of free-kicks being given away by both teams - and so it was that set plays became the most likely source of a goal as the first half went on. Chikara Fujimoto delivered a number of typically accurate balls into the Kobe box, but every time the ball bounced it was mopped up by a hard-working Vissel defence. Moving now into control of the game, the Squirrels went closest two minutes before the break, but frustratingly Wakabayashi's header came off the woodwork.
No changes were made by either side at half-time, but the match continued in the same vein as the second period got underway, with a lack of flowing football on offer and both teams apparently seeking to play on the counter. In the tactical battle between Miura and his opposite number Pavel Rehak, however, it was the Czech who blinked first and made three substitutions in quick succession around the hour mark, but Omiya weren't thrown out of their stride and continued to look comfortable enough without being threatening.
With eighteen minutes left on the clock, though, Wakabayashi was withdrawn in favour of Morita - and rarely has a change of personnel had a more dramatic effect on match, for just two minutes later, Jun Marques Davidson pounced on a loose ball and lofted it in to the area to the tall sub, who beat the defence to it and sent a smart header past Seiji Honda in the Vissel goal.
Celebrations with Hiroshi Morita
Their J1 place hanging by a thread, Kobe threw everything at Ardija, with tough defender Kunie Kitamoto joining in as a surrogate striker; and Omiya pulled everyone back save Morita as a lone forward. But Vissel were unable to break down Seiichiro Okuno and co., who held on for those three precious points and sent Rehak's team down into J2 for 2006 - ironically, twelve months after the Squirrels had confirmed their own promotion.
"This was psychologically a very important game for Vissel and, make no mistake about it, they were aiming to win," said Toshiya Miura afterwards. "That's what we'd been expecting and that's what happened. For the first twenty minutes in particular they did well, probably better than they'd played against us in any of the matches this season - but they didn't really threaten us that much. After that, we moved more into the game and we could really afford to be patient. I'm just pleased that we won the game, I'm satisfied."
Vissel Kobe, crying like a bunch o' girls. Too late for that, lads
Goalscorer Hiroshi Morita was clearly delighted to get back on to the scoresheet again. "When Marques hit it, I thought I was a bit slow in my movement, but I managed to get ahead of the defender and get a clean shot in. It was brilliant to score with my first kick in what was a tough game, Vissel fought well and played a good game." Defender Takuro Nishimura agreed with this assessment of Kobe's performance. "Obviously in a game like this one, their motivation is going to be high - it's not like a normal game, and for us that meant that we had to be patient, keep to our rhythm, wait for a chance. The fact that we were able to do all those things I think is a good sign for the future."