Goal hero Masato Saito. An unusual collection of words there
It may have been 99% sure after last weekend's sensational victory at FC Tokyo, but Omiya Ardija made it absolutely certain that they will retain their J1 status for 2008 in the last game of what has been a traumatic season. With relegation rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima unable to pull off the required big win over Gamba Osaka, the Mighty Squirrels confirmed matters with a solid performance at Omiya Koen against Kawasaki Frontale - one of the division's form teams.
Despite the fact that it took Ardija until injury time to grab the point, Omiya were the better side for most of the match and it was the familiar problem of poor finishing that almost proved costly. Coach Satoru Sakuma, a.k.a. the Luckiest Man Alive, elected to field a front pairing of top scorer Kota Yoshihara and Hiroshi Morita, but it was Frontale who took the lead via a bullet header from 23-year-old forward Tese Chong following a corner midway through the first half.
The Squirrels had a few chances in the opening period and nearly equalised through the unlikely figure of Morita, whose acrobatic overhead went flashing inches past Eiji Kawashima's post. Chikara Fujimoto almost followed on from his vital goal against Tokyo by lobbing Kawashima from well inside the Ardija half, but Cheeky's ambitious effort went just wide with the Kawasaki keeper left flailing.
But it was a more attacking and threatening Omiya team that took to the field after the interval, numerous chances being created but none converted. Yoshiyuki Kobayashi had a shot from fifty yards that was caught just under the bar by Kawashima and Daigo Kobayashi fired in two dangerous free kicks - one of which went just over from 35 yards and another late on that struck the woodwork. Big defender Leandro sought to build upon his spectacular solo goal last Saturday, but placed a free header wide of the target when he should have scored.
An emotional Seiichiro Okuno
Perhaps appropriately, though - bearing in mind the fact that the game marked the retirement of an Omiya legend in former captain Seiichiro Okuno - it was Okuno's longest-standing team-mate Masato Saito who popped up with the equaliser in stoppage time. A cross-cum-shot from Yoshiyuki Kobayashi fell at the feet of the midfield man, who rifled an angled right-foot shot into the Kawasaki net for his first league goal since 2004.
Emotional scenes followed when Saito raced over to Okuno on the substitutes' bench to celebrate, as tears ran down the cheeks of the departing skipper. After the final whistle, there was an Okuno tribute that even included a message from his long-time defensive partner Toninho. But Ardija are safe - roll on 2008!
Omiya Ardija defender Leandro guaranteed himself instant club legend status in a dramatic afternoon at Ajinomoto on Saturday, as in the closing seconds of the game with FC Tokyo he scored the goal that almost ensures the Squirrels's J1 survival. After an incredible run, the big Brazilian fired home from ten yards to clinch a vital victory with what was, remarkably, his first goal of the season.
While relegation rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Ventforet Kofu were losing their matches, perhaps the greatest goal ever scored by an Ardija player meant that Satoru Sakuma's team were able to squeeze past the Gasheads 2-1. A day that had begun jam-packed with tension ended with Omiya three points ahead of a Hiroshima side on cataclysmically bad form - and with a markedly better goal difference into the bargain. In other words, barring total disaster in the final match of the season, Leandro's goal has succeeded in keeping the Squirrels in J1.
Contrary to press reports before kick-off, Sakuma fielded a relatively conventional line-up, Yosuke Kataoka coming into central midfield in place of Naoya Saeki and Kota Yoshihara making a welcome return to the team alongside Hiroshi Morita up front. And it was Yoshihara who was the key man for Ardija, who looked committed from the start, pressing and harrying an FC Tokyo team with little to play for but pride.
Another picture of Leandro. Woohoo!
The one-time Japanese international forward had some good opportunities in the opening period. The first of these arrived in the sixth minute when Yoshiyuki Kobayashi's blocked shot fell to Omiya's diminuitive number nine, who struck his shot wide of the right post. Later, Yoshihara had another good chance when Daigo Kobayashi put him clean through only for the outstretched hand of Hitoshi Shiota to prevent an opening goal and the same player should again have scored shortly afterwards, when he ballooned a shot over the bar after Yoshiyuki set him up.
Otherwise, the first half was fairly even, with not much threat at either end, but just a couple of minutes after the re-start the home side took the lead when right-sided midfield man Naohiro Ishikawa took delivery of a clever back pass and smashed a shot past Koji Ezumi. After a decent performance, things could scarcely have looked bleaker for Omiya.
In contrast with so many of this season's performances, however, these cornered Squirrels fought back and with the crowd barely back in their seats after Ishikawa's opener, Yoshihara dis-possessed a defender and squared it for captain Chikara Fujimoto to fire home an equaliser. Frustratingly, with the score at one apiece - and in the knowledge that winning the game would provide a massive advantage in the relegation fight - Sakuma opted for a more defensive formation and Ardija were on the backfoot for most of the remainder of the game.
With time running out and thoughts starting to turn to what would have been next week's decider against Kawasaki Frontale, Leandro won a tackle on the edge of his own penalty area and weaved his way past several defenders, running virtually the whole length of the pitch finally to blast a right-foot shot past Shiota from ten yards out.
If Omiya Ardija do manage to avoid relegation at the end of this season, they will look back to Sunday's match with rivals Ventforet Kofu and will surely believe that they were lucky to get a point - and indeed to prevent Kofu from obtaining what would have been a crucial win for the claret-and-blues. Squirrels coach Satoru Sakuma fielded a starting line-up that had in total netted only seven league goals all year, adopting a 4-5-1 from the start and rookie forward Pedro Junior understandably struggled to cope against three markers.
Ardija nevertheless had some reasonable chances in the first half - defender Daisuke Tomita had a header from a 34th-minute corner that cleared the bar and Pedro Junior beat his man and was about to round keeper Tatsuya Tsuruta and score, when Tsuruta stuck out an arm to prevent the youngster from giving Omiya a 1-0 lead. The home side, however, were particularly dangerous from set plays, especially free-kicks, and had several notable opportunities when Squirrels netminder Koji Ezumi had to be particularly alert.
That idiot Nishimura chases Katsuya Ishihara
In the second half, star midfielder Daigo Kobayashi had a couple of long range left-footed efforts, Pedro Junior had a shot blocked with the keeper in no man's land and Ardija's chance of the game fell to substitute Naoto Sakurai who sent in a right-footed curler that Tsuruta palmed on to the angle of post and crossbar and out for a corner. The majority of possession remained with a Ventforet side desperately seeking a goal and those three precious points and the final few minutes were horribly nerve-wracking for Omiya supporters.
Unbelievably, right back Takuro Nishimura - on his first game back in the team - got himself sent off as he had done just last month at Albirex Niigata and after that it looked like Omiya would get punished in injury time, as had occurred in that match. And how Ventforet failed to score remains a mystery. Deep into injury time, confusion between Tomita and Yusuke Murayama resulted in Zeljko Radovic being completely clean through with the simple task of Ezumi to beat. He didn't. The ball went wide and seconds later the referee blew his whistle. A fortuitous point and thanks to Leandro's equaliser for Vissel Kobe at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Omiya stay fifteenth.
As far as curtain-raisers go, Omiya Ardija's fantastic new stadium really should have had a better spectacle than the gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat to Oita Trinita, although the atrocious weather was certainly a factor in what was a disappointing ninety minutes of football. Well, eighty-seven minutes; because just three minutes into the opening fixture at the new Omiya Koen stadium, Squirrels midfielder Yoshiyuki Kobayashi got things off to a dream start when he rifled in an unstoppable left-foot effort.
For a time, it appeared as if all was going to be well for Ardija. Coach Satoru Sakuma, in undoubtedly the most important match of his short career, had elected for an untested back four combination, with Yusuke Murayama moving into the centre from right back, where he was replaced by inexperienced Terukazu Tanaka. Oita had their fair share of the play, but were held at arm's length only until the 26th minute, when skin-headed defender Yuki Fukaya was on hand to tap home after a shot hit Koji Ezumi's post and fell to his feet.
The Squirrels probed and Denis Marques could have restored the lead, but the Brazilian forwards failed to get on the end of a cross from the right. And as the game moved into the second half, Sakuma appeared content to concede the initiative with the match still at one goal apiece; Omiya had a few chances in the second half, notably when Chikara Fujimoto's header went over the bar, but the home side were usually second best.
A fisheye view of the new Omiya Park
It was the substitutions that altered the direction of the game and for this the Ardija boss must take responsibility. Big striker Hiroshi Morita was replaced just six minutes after the re-start by defensive midfield man Masato Saito and incredibly - in a match that would have provided the whole club with a massive boost to win - Omiya went from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1.
While two other Squirrels substitutions quickly followed, on the away bench Trinita coach Chamusca held his nerve. Unsurprisingly, the goalscoring opportunities subsequently dried up for the men in orange, who were on the back foot for the remainder of the game. The visitors clearly felt that the three points were there to be won and in the closing stages made three changes to pep up their attack. And Oita had a goal disallowed for a foul on keeper Ezumi, but made no mistake just two minutes before the end when Shunsuke Maeda lashed home a left-foot shot from close range.
A point was therefore thrown away when a more positive attitude could have led to Omiya getting a massively valuable win - one that would have enabled them to overtake the Kyushu side and increase the gap between themselves and relegation rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Ventforet Kofu. The feeling remains that the Squirrels are not a side that cope well with a tough physical challenge and this is exactly what they need to overcome in another vital fixture at Kofu on Sunday.
What a vital weekend this is in the history of Omiya Ardija. Sunday sees the opening at long last of the club's refurbished stadium with a friendly against neighbours Kashiwa Reysol, but of greater significance than that milestone was the second game in the Squirrels' current quartet of key J1 fixtures - games that will without doubt decide in which division Ardija end up playing their football next year. And the prayers of coach Satoru Sakuma are being answered, in the shape of consecutive wins for the first time all season, combined with another top drawer display from midfield maestro Daigo Kobayashi.
And although Saturday's opposition was weak, the 1-0 defeat of J2-bound Yokohama FC was arguably the Squirrels' most most comfortable win of 2007. On another day Omiya could have won by three or four goals, Daigo and also Brazilian front man Denis Marques both putting in outstanding performances in truly atrocious conditions, that often led to the ball getting stuck in pools of water.
Right up until his replacement in the dying seconds by Kota Yoshihara, Denis was, for want of a better word, a menace and ghosted past the home defence time and again with consummate ease. He hit the post with a fine drive from the left-hand side of the penalty area just before Daigo opened the scoring in the 39th minute. The crucial goal came as a result of a Yusuke Murayama cross which eluded the Sky Blues' back line and was then brilliantly chipped over Takanori Sugeno by the in-form Omiya star.
Best of friends again, Daigo and fans
The home side had several long-range efforts in the game, all of which went wide and didn't trouble keeper Koji Ezumi at all. And if anything, the second half was more one-sided than the first had been, Denis Marques in particular orchestrating some positive attacking moves. He was clean through with only the keeper to beat but his excellent right foot attempt was palmed to safety by Sugeno with no-one on hand to put in what would have been a simple rebound.
Daigo should have added his second when he flashed a header past the post from Chikara Fujimoto's cross when unmarked. But despite the missed opportunities, Ardija were never put in any real difficulty by their lacklustre opposition and the result - combined with Sanfrecce Hiroshima sensationally conceding twice in injury time to throw away a 2-0 lead - means that the Mighty Squirrels climb out of the bottom three for the first time since June. There are still twelve points to pay for, but could an unlikely escape be on the cards?
Nine minutes from time and just three minutes after having come on as a replacement for Hiroshi Morita, Omiya Ardija super sub Manabu Wakabayashi netted a truly vital goal to claim all three points for his team against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday afternoon. And it was a deserved win for the Squirrels, providing a major boost for players and fans alike in what was the last-ever Ardija game to be staged at Komaba Stadium. It also meant that Omiya overtook Ventforet Kofu to move out of the automatic relegation places, as a nailbiting final phase of the 2007 season finally got underway.
As expected, on-loan defender Yusuke Murayama stepped in for a full debut in place of the suspended Takuro Nishimura at right back. An injury to Naoya Saeki meant a return to the starting line-up for Yosuke Kataoka in central midfield, while up front Morita was partnered by Denis Marques as top scorer Kota Yoshihara had to be content with a place on the bench for the match against Squirrels bogey side Sanfrecce.
Sakuma shouts at Ardija’s star man
Building on a lively opening in which Denis Marques and Daigo Kobayashi both had attempts on goal, Omiya were purposeful and energetic throughout and apart from the totally out of sorts Chikara Fujimoto, every player did themselves proud. The star of the show was Daigo, who put in a performance reminiscent of last season's form, turning up everywhere and making some excellent opportunities.
Fujimoto, however, had another wretched game in what has been for him individually a desperately disappointing season. The Omiya skipper had a free header from a tremendous Daigo cross that he put wide when only a few yards out and also struck a tame shot straight at Hiroshima keeper Takashi Shimoda from a similar position. Eventually he was taken off in favour of Takashi Hirano and shortly afterwards Wakabayashi came on to grab his third goal of the year from close range.
In contrast with the generally hard-working and committed Squirrels, Hiroshima were poor and indeed have now gone five games without picking up so much as a point. This run of results has seen them slip perilously close to the relegation zone, seemingly with no idea as to how they might bring about a change of fortune. Experienced striker Ueslei had a header ruled out for offside in the first half and they hit the bar after the interval, which caught everyone - especially Omiya keeper Koji Ezumi - by surprise. The subsequent rebound drifted harmlessly to safety, taking with it the visitors' chances of taking any points from the game.
Wakabayashi receives the congratulations of the Squirrel Nation
The reaction to Wakabayashi's goal from a noisy crowd of just over 11,000 was a mixture of relief and ecstasy and, unlike other games this season, Ardija held on to win. With the big four games against Omiya's relegation rivals now underway, from here on in - things could get interesting.