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.