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.