For the first time ever, Omiya Ardija participated on Christmas Eve in the last eight of the Emperor's Cup, matched up with a full-strength Kashima Antlers side desperate to bring to an end in style the reign of coach Toninho Cerezo. And although Antlers fielded all their stars at a chilly Sendai Stadium, such as Alex Mineiro and Mitsuo Ogasawara, the Squirrels in contrast had something of a weakened look to their line-up, with Toninho back in Brazil and skipper Seiichiro Okuno missing due to a lack of recent training, as a result of his continuing work towards achieving coaching certification.
This meant a back four of Takuro Nishimura and Kazuyoshi Mikami on each side, while Yosuke Kataoka and Daisuke Tomita provided a distinctly unfamiliar partnership in the middle. Naoto Sakurai and Hiroshi Morita led the front line, Manabu Wakabayashi sitting things out on the bench. And so the stage was set for a match up of individual skill against organisational strategy, the Squirrels being particularly mindful of the damage caused by Antlers in scoring early goals in both of the league matches between the two sides.
It was therefore something of a surprise that the clearer chances in the opening 45 minutes were in fact created by Ardija, who although playing mostly on the back foot were always looking to move forward as quickly as possible whenever the opportunity presented itself, Tatsunori Hisanaga's long-range shot in the fourth minute setting the tone. At the other end, Kataoka and Tomita coped well with the speed of Masashi Motoyama and Alex Mineiro.
And at a packed Sendai Stadium...
Always alert to the idea of setting up attacks, the Squirrels' next half-chance came on seventeen minutes, when a swift break down the left by Sakurai led to a shot from Morita that was saved by Hitoshi Sogahata in the Kashima goal. But the main source of opportunities was good work from overlapping fullbacks Mikami and especially Nishimura, who nearly opened the scoring with what would have been a wonder goal in the 24th minute when he ran from around the half-way line but was robbed of possession when about to shoot. Omiya nevertheless kept things solid at the back to hold at bay their more illustrious opponents and the score remained 0-0 at half-time.
Antlers started the second period brightly, Alex Mineiro going close in the early stages although Kataoka deserves credit for preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity for the dangerous Brazilian forward. Tomita did the same on 54 minutes to stop Motoyama's shot and just a minute later, the Squirrels' defensive resilience paid dividends as Fujimoto intercepted a stray ball the ball on the half-way line and, with Omiya moving rapidly out of defence, a great through pass fed Morita, who shook off the attentions of the Kashima defence and fired it past Sogahata for a 1-0 lead to the men in white.
Hiroshi Morita, goal hero
Toninho Cerezo responded by replacing defender Toru Araiba with international forward Takayuki Suzuki as Antlers increased the pressure on the Ardija goal. But Hiroki Aratani and his defence held firm, assisted in the closing stages by Shin Kanazawa, thrown on by Toshiya Miura in place of Sakurai - and Omiya held on to triumph over one of J1's power houses and so proceed to the last four of the Emperor's Cup for the first time in the club's history.
"It's a big thing for us to beat Antlers after the two defeats in the league against them," commented Miura afterwards. "They put out a strong side and it was our attitude that helped us to win the game - we didn't have any fear of their aggression and we knew we could keep our discipline and keep a clean sheet. It was a team performance rather than one for lots of individuals."
"That was a good win - and it was a relief," Yosuke Kataoka said. "It's so good to have come out of a game like that without having conceded, especially as other players had to take the responsibility normally picked up by Okuno and Toninho. As for my playing in central defence, it wasn't something we really talked about a lot beforehand. We just kept things simple and played to our strengths. Tomita and Nishimura made fantastic contributions and because it was a real team effort, we felt confident and as if we could cope without too many major problems. We're in the semis now, but it's our aim now to go as far as possible in the competition."
We did 'em lads, we did 'em
But as the club now look forward to Thursday's historic semi-final against deadly rivals Urawa Reds - without, it should be reported, the suspended Chikara Fujimoto - the last word must go to goal hero Hiroshi Morita. "Kashima are a strong side, so for us to be able to beat them is fantastic - and it was a really tough match. We had to be defensive, be patient and wait for our chance to come, working our way into the match like that.
"Even when they were putting us under a lot of pressure, though, the defence held firm and we didn't look like cracking. That's what enabled us to win the game, the level of defensive organisation. As for the goal, it was based on Chikara's usual great timing and he played a brilliant ball through for me to run on to - we weren't able to make that many other decent scoring opportunities, to it was important to make that one count. And now we're in a position where we can look forward to another Saitama derby game in the semi-final."
Some clips from this game can be seen at the SportsNavi site, here. Thanks to Jay for the photo