What a difference ten seconds makes. That's all it took for Leandro to turn Omiya Ardija's entire 2007 campaign on its head, when in the last minute of Saturday's match at Ajinomoto against FC Tokyo the Brazilian central defender embarked upon a run that took him virtually the length of the pitch, before clipping the ball over Tokyo keeper Hitoshi Shiota for a truly sensational winning goal.
The three points gleaned from that encounter combined with a 3-0 defeat at Kawasaki Frontale for relegation rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima means that Ardija go into their last game of the season three points ahead and with a goal difference better by eleven. Put another way, in order to drop back into the dreaded play-off spot, Omiya will have to suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of Kawasaki while Hiroshima need to deliver an absolute thrashing to third-placed Gamba Osaka.
The former has to be acknowledged as a possibility - Frontale have been in potent form over the last couple of months, rattling in eighteen goals in just five games - and the latter less so, given Sanfrecce's current run of results that has seen them take just two points from 27. But while there are no guarantees in football, Leandro's moment of glory has given coach Satoru Sakuma a level of security in their J1 status of which they can only have dreamed as the FC Tokyo match seemed to be petering out to a 1-1 draw.
This much was clear from the reaction to the winner of Sakuma himself, covering his upturned face with his hands in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, while the travelling Ardija support celebrated wildly. After the final whistle there were, not surprisingly, tears shed both in the stands and in the dressing room.
The significance of that goal in the history of Omiya Ardija will no doubt be pondered at length over the close season, but before then fans will be hoping that Sakuma has brought his squad back down to earth for the Frontale game - a match of some significance not only because of its potential impact upon the club's league position. It is of course only the second fixture to be staged at the rebuilt Omiya Koen and after the disappointment of the 2-1 defeat to Oita Trinita in the curtain raiser three weeks ago, it is important to establish in the players' minds the notion that their new home can become a fortress - a place where they are difficult to beat.
Having to wait until 2008 for the first win at their magnificent new home would make this season conclude with something like unfinished business. But in some senses more sentimentally, the Frontale game also makes the end of the career of an Omiya great. A ceremony will be held to mark the retirement of former captain Seiichiro Okuno, bowing out after having arrived at the club in 1998, when they were still members of the JFL.
Some have given credit to Okuno for the timing of his announcement that he planned to quit and if it was indeed a motivational device it has been a successful one, with the Squirrels having gone on to pick up four vital points in the two subsequent matches. That Okuno can leave Omiya as a J1 player is a source of pride, while a victory over Kawasaki Frontale would round off a traumatic year in style.
So, the countdown has come to the final two games. Time may be running out for some of the participants in the J1 relegation battle, but for others the situation is exactly as precariously balanced as it has been for the last few weeks - the distance between success and failure being, at this stage in the season, very short indeed.
The failure of Ventforet Kofu to beat Omiya Ardija on Sunday had ramifications for both teams - Kofu, absolutely desperate to win the match, are four points from safety and now look in grave danger of occupying the second relegation spot. For Omiya, the single point pricelessly and fortuitously gained enabled them to stay just in front of a Sanfrecce Hiroshima side who couldn't hold on to their lead at home to Vissel Kobe.
All three teams appear devoid of confidence, but nevertheless it is Ardija who have made some progress as they fight to avoid the drop. Four wins in seven games during September and October have put Satoru Sakuma's team in a position where they know that if in the final two fixtures of the season they achieve the same or better results than Sanfrecce, they will in all probability guarantee J1 survival for 2008.
And if there is one side that would appear to hold the key to deciding who wins and who loses the race to avoid the drop, it is of course... FC Tokyo. And Kawasaki Frontale. That's two teams. But curiously, the J-League schedule has determined that while Tokyo host Ardija this Saturday and then travel to Kofu on the last day of the season, Frontale play Hiroshima in Kanagawa before meeting the Squirrels at Omiya Koen in ten days' time.
Tokyo's recent form has been wildly unpredictable, a 7-0 demolition at home by - of all teams - Kawasaki followed two games later by a draw with title chasing Gamba Osaka. Luckily for Omiya, they will be missing through suspension two of their most important players, wide man Yasuyuki Konno and central defensive lynchpin Teruyuki Moniwa.
Ardija, on the other hand, will surely welcome back Leandro to the heart of the back four, while Takuro Nishimura faces two more matches on the sidelines as a result of his dismissal in the latter stages of the game at Ventforet. Most Squirrels fans are doubtless unsympathetic to the plight of Nishimura, who in being red-carded not once but twice in recent weeks cost his team a point at Albirex Niigata and almost did the same on Sunday.
Such unreliability cannot be sanctioned with so much at stake and fortunately loan signing Yusuke Murayama appears to be a more than able replacement. Indeed, perhaps the only question mark facing Sakuma in terms of team selection comes as the result of the injury - reported to be a cut to the face of some sort - to striker Denis Marques.
Against Kofu, a makeshift 4-5-1 formation led unexpectedly by the inexperienced Pedro Junior provided almost no attacking threat and it is imperative that, while the return of Leandro will bring stability to the back four, Ardija are able to exploit the absence of Moniwa and attack keeper Hitoshi Shiota. And all the time, the Squirrel Nation will be keeping a close eye on events in Kawasaki.
After the hammer blow of conceding two minutes from time in last Sunday's critical J1 clash with Oita Trinita - meaning that the club stay ahead of relegation rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima only on goal difference - comes perhaps the single most important game since Omiya Ardija gained promotion to J1 at the end of 2004. For this Sunday sees the Squirrels travel to Ventforet Kofu, knowing that a defeat will undo a very large proportion of the good work done by the victories over Yokohama FC and Hiroshima.
The gap between themselves and Kofu will be narrowed to just a single point, while Sanfrecce host a mid-table Vissel Kobe side with little to play for, knowing that the game represents their best opportunity in the final three matches to gain a crucial win. Oita, as a result of their late triumph in Saitama, have given themselves a huge advantage and while they cannot yet be considered completely safe from relegation, the participants in the battle to avoid the drop is now realistically reduced to a field of three: one will be safe, one will face a play-off to remain in the division and one will automatically accompany Yokohama FC back down to J2.
Earlier in the season, a dreadful display at home to Ventforet provoked protests from a section of the Ardija faithful, with many calling for the resignation of then-chief scout Satoru Sakuma. Now, of course, Sakuma is the man in charge - and he and the players have faced this week some stinging criticism for their poor performance on Sunday. For after midfielder Yoshiyuki Kobayashi had fired Omiya into a third-minute lead, the Squirrels dithered and dallied before handing the initiative to the visitors.
While Sakuma blew his tactical use of substitutions with a series of ill-advised changes, his opposite number Chamusca was experienced enough to bide his time and gradually increase the pressure on an Omiya back line missing key man Leandro through suspension. Leandro will once again be absent against Kofu, meaning that the Squirrels will be forced to stand up to an aggressive, hustling opponent without their strongest player.
So many members of Omiya's team failed to perform when it really mattered against Trinita that it is difficult to have any real reason to be optimistic about the Ventforet match. But Ardija must cope with the physical threat and must find the gaps in their leaky defence - otherwise the relegation trapdoor will beckon even more.
After the ultimately rather pointless detour to Toyama last weekend and elimination from this season's Emperor's Cup at the hands of Yokohama FC, Omiya Ardija return on Sunday afternoon to the serious business of avoiding relegation from J1. So many Squirrels league encounters in recent times seem to have fallen under the heading Most Important Match Ever - but what with the team's perilous position, the fact that opponents Oita Trinita are just two points better off in the standings and that the game sees the historic formal re-opening of Omiya Koen stadium, fans could easily be forgiven for thinking that this really is It.
Omiya's last two J1 fixtures, deserved 1-0 wins over the doomed Yokohama and a Sanfrecce Hiroshima side in freefall, have served simply to give coach Satoru Sakuma's team what some would argue is an unlikely chance of survival. But unless the Squirrels now go on to take the opportunity that they have created for themselves, rivals at the foot of the table such as Oita and Ventforet Kofu will be only too delighted to stamp them back down again.
Most observers would seem to agree that another pair of victories will suffice for Ardija to stay up, but the goal for all struggling clubs at this stage of the season is nothing more complicated than to achieve results good enough to take them out of the bottom two places and preferably the bottom three. Hiroshima, despite their dangerous forward line of Ueslei and Hisato Sato, are looking increasingly incapable of doing that, but Trinita are a different matter.
The Kyushu outfit's away form this season is poor - only Yokohama and Kofu have picked up fewer points on their travels - but in recent weeks they have run close both of the main title contenders in Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds. This cannot be considered as straightforward a game as the Squirrels' last two wins, particularly if one considers that Omiya slipped to a 3-1 defeat when the teams met in April and that key defender Leandro is missing through suspension.
Sakuma's plan for dealing with the potentially critical loss of the big Brazilian is unclear. Yosuke Kataoka came into the back four in Saturday's cup match, but this was as a replacement for Daisuke Tomita and not Leandro. A Tomita / Kataoka partnership is perhaps the most likely eventuality, but it is possible that Yusuke Murayama may move into the centre after playing well at right back since coming into the team for Takuro Nishimura.
Elsewhere, the starting front duo look set to be Hiroshi Morita and in-form Denis Marques, while the midfield now has a stable enough quartet of Naoya Saeki and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi in the middle and Daigo Kobayashi and Chikara Fujimoto on the flanks. Daigo has started to show his best football over the last few matches and netted a confidence-boosting winner two weeks ago, but Chikara continues to under-perform and frustrate the Squirrel Nation.
The captain owes the supporters a good display and it is urgently needed against Oita. A win on Sunday would see Ardija move to the unimagined heights of fourteenth place. A defeat would mean travelling to Kofu next weekend under the severest of pressure. Let the curtains open at Omiya Koen and may battle commence.
It is hard to think of an Ardija match this season that has been less eagerly awaited than Sunday's Emperor's Cup tie with Yokohama FC. Even with the prospect of another match-up with Urawa Reds to tempt the winners, not surprisingly, all the attention amongst Squirrels supporters remains on the team's desperate attempts to stay in J1. Therefore fans are concentrating instead on the following weekend's Oita Trinita match, with even the subsequent fixture against Ventforet Kofu attracting more attention than this - it has to be said, if somewhat shamefacedly - unwanted distraction.
A further reason why the Cup game is of so little interest to supporters, as well as the simple bad luck that the two teams have played each other so recently, is that the JFA have seen fit to stage the match neither in Omiya nor Yokohama, but in distant Toyama prefecture. Indeed, this follows on from the same stage of the competition last year, when Omiya played JFL side YKK AP even further away in Akita, a tie that attracted a crowd of just 2074. That day, Ardija claimed a narrow 2-1 win thanks to a late Manabu Wakabayashi goal, but while Sunday's result will clearly be of at least passing interest, Squirrels supporters will be especially keen to see the line-up selected by coach Satoru Sakuma.
One alternative is that Sakuma may adopt the policy of fielding a weakened side in order to avoid injury to key players such as Daigo Kobayashi and Denis Marques ahead of the vital matches with Oita and Kofu. Given that the team's central defensive lynchpin Leandro is set to miss those two games through suspension, Ardija's coach may take the opportunity to experiment against Yokohama by giving match practice to a new-look back-four, who will in turn be better prepared to play in the league games.
Leandro has missed four J1 encounters during the course of the season, with Omiya taking just a single point from that quartet of matches. At the end of March, a defence of Takuro Nishimura, Yosuke Kataoka, Daisuke Tomita and Yasuhiro Hato conceded two goals late on in the first half at home to Shimizu S-Pulse. Hato and Tomita then partnered young right back Terukazu Tanaka and ex-skipper Seiichiro Okuno in a 1-0 defeat at JEF United.
In Sakuma's first match as boss in August, Ardija did well to force a 2-2 draw at S-Pulse, but a combination of Tanaka, Kataoka, Tomita and Hato were unable to keep out Cho Jae Jin and Fernandinho. A week later, the same four players were part of an Omiya side lucky to get away with only a 2-1 defeat by Kashima Antlers, so it therefore seems reasonable to assume that a strong back line will be chosen to take on Yokohama, if only as part of the preparation for Leandro's absence.
What a twelve months it has been for the Yokohama FC. Sensationally promoted from J2 on the back of a rock solid defence and a midfield orchestrated by former international legend Motohiro Yamaguchi, the Sky Blues began 2007 with a narrow defeat at Urawa Reds which featured a stunning goal from incoming striker Tatsuhiko Kubo and followed that up with the moment that fans had dreamed of, ever since predecessor club Yokohama Flugels were swallowed up by rivals Yokohama Marinos in a messy corporate takeover at the end of the last century.
For it was as early in the campaign as the second fixture of the season that Fulie hosted the despised Marinos, in what their older fans could scarcely be blamed for calling a revenge match. And in only the seventh minute, defender Tomonobu Hayakawa got on the end of a looping ball in the Sailors' box and scooped it over keeper Tetsuya Enomoto for an inelegant, but deeply significant, goal. However much Marinos may have dominated much of the rest of the match, Yokohama FC hung on for a remarkable win that seemed to suggest not only that the nightmares of the past had been laid to rest, but also that the squad may just have enough quality and determination to make a fist of life in the top division.
Now, of course, we know different. Takuya Takagi's squad hit the bottom of the standings in mid-April and apart from a couple of tiny blips have remained there ever since. In the return derby game in August, Marinos gained a revenge of their own, with an 8-1 hammering that came in the middle of a run that has seen Fulie pick up just a solitary point from sixteen fixtures. Takagi's replacement, Julio Real, has now overseen eight consecutive defeats - including Saturday's capitulation at Kobe, which merely provided final confirmation that the team with the worst attack and the worst defence in the league will indeed by relegated back to J2 for 2008.
Omiya Ardija's contribution to the Sky Blues' demise has been modest enough, a header from defender Daisuke Tomita notching up what was in mid-May only the Squirrels' second win of the season. But while the outcome of the season is now clear for Yokohama, Omiya's J1 survival rests on a knife-edge and, as such, Saturday's encounter at Mitsuzawa could scarcely be more vital. After a deserved victory last weekend over a Sanfrecce Hiroshima side in decline, Ardija's tails are up amidst signs that playmaker Daigo Kobayashi is finally hitting some kind of consistent form.
Coach Satoru Sakuma has more or less a full-strength squad to choose from, as defender Takuro Nishimura is available once again after missing the Hiroshima match through suspension - although deputy Yusuke Murayama did well on his full debut. It is even possible that long-term absentee Hiroki Aratani will return between the posts, as the Squirrels' first-choice keeper finally picked up some playing time for the reserves at the weekend after four months out with a broken arm.
But issues of team selection aside, what Sakuma needs now above all from his players is the ability to take the positives from one match and to continue to deliver in the next. This is something that they have failed to do all year, a characteristic that has seen good results and excellent performances followed rapidly by disastrous defeats in which nothing appeared to go right. Against Sanfrecce, Omiya defended comfortably and restricted a potentially very dangerous opponent to a handful of attempts on goal, whilst creating a good number of chances at the other end. Whether it be Denis Marques,Kota Yoshihara,Hiroshi Morita or Manabu Wakabayashi, the next step of Ardija's survival strategy depends on someone putting away those chances on Saturday.
So this is it. The J1 season may be 34 games long and last for nine months of the year, but for Omiya Ardija, the real action begins on Saturday against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and goes on for a matter of just a few short weeks. This is the crunch period of four matches that will effectively decide the Squirrels' fate. If they gain sufficiently good results in their forthcoming meetings with Sanfrecce, Yokohama FC, Oita Trinita and Ventforet Kofu, it is perfectly possible that Ardija will be playing J1 football next season; if they don't, they won't and in 2008 will host Tokushima Vortis and Sagan Tosu at the revamped Omiya Koen stadium.
September provided Omiya supporters with tantalising glimpses of the level of performance that their team can deliver, with a delirious derby win over Urawa Reds and a polished 2-0 defeat of Yokohama F Marinos sandwiching inept home losses to Jubilo Iwata and JEF United. Since taking over as coach, Satoru Sakuma may have come up with a few high points - but he has utterly failed to instil in his players any consistency.
This is a point exemplified in the last match at Albirex Niigata, in which the Squirrels put in a decent enough display for the majority of the ninety minutes, missed more than one easy chance to take the lead and then fell apart in the final stages. Defender Takuro Nishimura was foolish enough to get himself red carded late on - and the subsequent shambolic reorganisation of the back line and of defensive responsibilities throughout the team meant that Edmilson was able to steal a winner in injury time.
Who knows which Ardija side will turn up at Komaba on Saturday afternoon to face Hiroshima, in an encounter that Sakuma knows is a must-not-lose game? Will it be the team that fought and fought heroically against Reds, with Leandro and Hiroshi Morita combining brilliantly to slice open the league leaders' defence for a stunning goal? Or will it instead be the line-up that in the very next match slumped to a gutless defeat at the hands of a less-than-brilliant Jubilo?
It seems unlikely at this stage in the season that Sakuma will want to tinker too much his favoured starting eleven on Saturday, although Yusuke Murayama would appear favourite to come in at right back as replacement for the suspended Nishimura. Elsewhere, the only question mark is over the forward line, in that the introduction of Denis Marques and Pedro Junior during the second half against Niigata failed to provide the hoped-for extra energy and mobility.
As for Sanfrecce, well - this is not a game about Sanfrecce. The records show that the Three Arrows are Omiya's number one bogey team, having defeated the Squirrels on all five occasions that the two teams have met in the top division. But as Steve commented the other day, statistics mean nothing. And for Omiya, a win in the last-ever match at Komaba will mean everything.