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!