Omiya Ardija's battling performance against Kashima Antlers earned them a mouthwatering clash with Saitama rivals Urawa Reds in the Emperor's Cup semi-final at Sendagaya on Thursday afternoon - the fifth occasion in which the two have squared up to each other during the course of what has been an amazing year for the Mighty Squirrels.
And as had been the case against Toninho Cerezo's Antlers, it was a more or less full strength opposition that Ardija were up against, while Toshiya Miura's XI had something of a makeshift look to it: Satoshi Yokoyama was eventually selected ahead of Yusuke Shimada as a replacement for the suspended Chikara Fujimoto and captain Seiichiro Okuno came in for Kazuyoshi Mikami to partner Yosuke Kataoka in the centre of defence, Daisuke Tomita again moving back out to the left.
Preparing for kick-off
The match began somewhat as expected, with Reds having most of the possession via the likes of Makoto Hasebe in midfield as well as the front pairing of Tomislav Maric and the experienced Masayuki Okano, Robson Ponte too contributing to the fast-flowing Urawa play. But Okuno was again marshalling the Omiya defence effectively and he ensured that in the final third, the Reds front players were denied space and time.
Yet another injury to the luckless Naoto Sakurai as early as the twelfth minute necessitated a change of approach for the Squirrels up front, as Manabu Wakabayashi came on to partner Hiroshi Morita, although chances for the men in orange were few and far between. 23 minutes in, a Robson Ponte free kick from the left hand side was met by Maric ahead of his marker and Urawa were 1-0 ahead, seemingly in control of the match.
Kataoka and friends in celebratory mood
Just three minutes later, however, Omiya stunned the Reds support when a free kick of their own was nudged to one side by Tatsunori Hisanaga for Kataoka to lash the ball inside Ryota Tsuzuki's right hand post for an equaliser. The game stayed level for the remainder of the first half and it was Urawa who retained the majority of possession after the re-start, Nobuhisa Yamada and Alex Santos looking dangerous as they went close to taking the lead once again - and in the 62nd minute, a Santos cross was nodded over a hapless Hiroki Aratani by Hasebe to make it 2-1.
Ardija once again tried to fight their way back into the match, with Miura throwing on Shin Kanazawa and Shimada in place of the Yokoyama and the distinctly unfortunate Jun Marques Davidson, but on this occasion it seemed as if Urawa would be able to weather the storm and hold on for a win. With the ninety minutes almost up, the Squirrels launched a final desperate assualt on the Reds goal from Aratani and in the resulting scramble, Morita competed with Tsuzuki for the ball and Tomita headed it over the line for a sensational equaliser.
And so the match now moved into extra time - but the massive effort made by the Omiya side to haul themselves back into the tie was to take its toll almost immediately, a loss of concentration enabling Urawa captain Yamada space to curl home a shot from the edge of the area just five minutes in. Shortly afterwards, with Omiya again hurling everything at the Reds defence, Hasebe and Maric broke quickly from the edge of their own area and it was Hasebe who notched up the fourth with a great run and finish to knock Omiya Ardija out of the competition and so put an end to the 2005 campaign for the Mighty Squirrels.
The Squirrels defend a Reds corner
"We really wanted the result today, so it's very frustrating to have lost the match," said goal hero Yosuke Kataoka afterwards. "There was a lot of focus and a lot of hard work from all the players on keeping things tight defensively and everyone really appreciates that. At the first goal, though, it was my job to mark Maric and it was my mistake that he scored.
"I need to practice that kind of situation more in the future, but it made me very determined to help the team get back on level terms, and the free kick was a great moment. I think we've learned a lot over the course of the season, about the strengths you need to compete with the top teams - and we've done okay, without being satisfied, we want to keep going next year."
Daisuke Tomita agreed with this assessment of both the individual game and the season overall. "We weren't under that much pressure in the first half apart from at set pieces, and Wakabayashi having to come on so early in some senses made things simpler for us in terms of how we approached our attacking play," he commented. "Kataoka's been practicing his free kicks and it was a cracking shot that he scored with. After half time, we were again just trying to keep things under control at free kicks and corners.
"As for my goal, well, I owe it to Morita, he did really well - and it was doubly frustrating, then, to go 3-2 down so soon after the start of extra time. But I think that to be able to fight our way back into the game twice shows how we've progressed this year. It can be difficult to maintain your motivation after the league campaign has finished, but we kept on going throughout these Emperor's Cup ties and have achieved a lot: to be able to stay up in J1 is a massive thing for our club. And as a team and individually, we haven't finished growing yet."
Blimey, it's cold
But the last word must surely go to coach Toshiya Miura, reviewing a truly thrilling year for his team. "This is the fifth time we've played Reds this year, so we knew the kinds of problems we'd face and that it would be a really tough match. We were especially concerned to be on our guard against and at set pieces, but then the injury to Sakurai so early was a blow to us.
"Having two bigger strikers like Wakabayashi and Morita gave us an advantage in terms of winning the ball in the air, though, and we were able to make modifications to the way we played to exploit that. But looking back over the season, we've managed to stay in J1, we've got to the last eight of the Nabisco Cup and the last four of the Emperor's Cup - that's not a bad record, and the players have bonded together to form a good group. We lost today, but we feel proud of our achievements this year and are looking forward to 2006."
Thanks to Omiya Fan and Jay for photos. Click here to launch a stream of first half highlights in Windows Media Player; and here for the rest of the match