It is difficult to over-state the extent to which well-worn phrase "game of two halves" describes Ardija's J1 match with Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Saturday evening. Missing central defender Leandro under mysterious circumstances - the big Brazilian has reportedly returned to his native country and is not injured - coach Yasuhiro Higuchi fielded Yosuke Kataoka alongside Daisuke Tomita in the heart of the Squirrels back four, a decision that caused even the most loyal Omiya supporter to break out into a pre-game sweat.
Following last week's disastrous home defeat by Consadole Sapporo, most Ardija fans were pessimstic about an encounter with J1's third-placed team and early exchanges tended to confirm this view. The Omiya midfield, including for the first time this year Naoya Saeki in one of the defensive positions, seemed utterly unable to retain possession. Time and time again, tentative sideways and backwards passes led to the ball being given away before it had even crossed the halfway line.
Under such circumstances, Frontale hardly had to look good in order to appear stronger than the Squirrels and indeed there was a fragility too about the home team. But given the weakness of their opposition, it was no surprise at all when Kawasaki took the lead ten minutes before the break, when Chong Tese twisted and turned into space, fired the ball towards the near post only for Daisuke Tomita to deflect it past Koji Ezumi.
Unlucky circumstances, perhaps, but by no means an unlucky scoreline. In fact, things began to look a little more realistic when Juninho danced around Ezumi to make it two after yet another defensive mix-up. Things had to change at half-time and it was Daigo Kobayashi and Shin Kanazawa on either side of the midfield who took the blame, Kota Yoshihara and youngster Kohei Tokita coming on in their places.
And the Squirrels roared out of the blocks at the re-start, pushing back a Kawasaki side who realy did not seem to offer much in the way of defensive resistance. Tokita in particular was mobile and aggressive and on 52 minutes got his reward, racing on to a clever Denis Marques through pass to shoot with the outside of his right foot past Eiji Kawashima in the home goal. It was deserved and it signalled Omiya's resurgence in the match.
For the majority of the second period, Frontale threatened barely at all in the face of an animated and pacey Ardija. After Tokita had Yoshihara had both gone close, it was Denis Marques who finally levelled things up fifteen minutes from time, a characteristically mazy run gaining him just enough space in the Kawasaki penalty area to get in a low shot that trickled into the corner past Kawashima's full-length dive.
Despite the Squirrels' superiority, the match appeared to be heading for a draw until the 87th minute, when the referee awarded Ardija a free kick just inside their own half. Skipper Yoshiyuki Kobayashi reacted like lightning, immediately launching a stunning high ball over the head of the panicking Kawashima, who back pedalled as fast as he could but could do nothing to prevent a quite incredible winning goal.
As the travelling Omiya support sang their way ecstatically to the final whistle, parallels were drawn with Leandro's season-saving run and shot against FC Tokyo in November last year - a startling moment of individual brilliance that somehow defined the Squirrels' whole year. J1 now enters its mid-season break, but for Ardija, what a way to finish.