Kota Yoshihara finally scored his first goal for Omiya Ardija last night in the most dramatic of circumstances, as the Squirrels grabbed all three points to confirm their status as one of the form teams in J1 at present. After Yoshiyuki Kobayashi's fine shot had given them a first-half lead, Ardija had conceded a late Naoki Matsuda penalty and with it, it appeared, the chance of victory. But an ecstatic Yoshihara popped up in injury time to claim his 50th career goal in the top flight of Japanese club football, enabling Omiya to hold on to eighth position and in touching distance of the teams above them.
With the first-choice duo of Hiroshi Morita suspended and Naoto Sakurai having picked up an injury in the defeat by Gamba Osaka at the weekend, coach Toshiya Miura was forced to make changes up front and to the relief of fans elected to give a rare start to Yoshihara, supported by Daigo Kobayashi and with Masato Saito, Yosuke Kataoka, Yoshiyuki Kobayashi and Tatsunori Hisanaga across the midfield.
And Omiya started brightly enough, the lively Yoshihara keen to get involved, to make runs and thereby pull open space in the Marinos defence. For their part, the home side were seeking to develop attacks via the midfield pairing of Hayuma Tanaka and Yukihiro Tanaka - but Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya were in a bullish mood and it was a rare occurrence indeed for Hiroki Aratani's goal to be seriously under threat.
"Well, y’know, the ball came over and I hit it and it went in"
But with Yoshihara leading the line, Daigo and Hisanaga picking up the ball and making passes, Kataoka and Yoshiyuki moving forward whenever possible and Hato and Tomita looking to advance on the overlap, it was Ardija who seemed the more balanced unit playing the better football. 26 minutes in, the Squirrels got their reward when Hisanaga was fouled on the halfway line. Daigo launched a long free-kick up towards the penalty area, where Toninho fought for the ball and set up Yoshiyuki for a left-foot shot from just outside box that beat keeper Tatsuya Enomoto for the opening goal.
Yoshihara’s moment of glory
Taking the lead seemed to inspire the men in white to yet greater efforts and they continued to take the play to the home defence, Yoshiyuki and Yoshihara combining well shortly before the interval, but they were unable to make further progress and the teams went in at the break just the one goal apart. Nevertheless it was the Squirrels who continued to look more dangerous as the second period got underway with no substitutions having been made on either side, Daisuke Tomita's header from a corner and another Yoshiyuki shot causing panic amongst the Marinos back line.
Dutra and Tanaka provided some difficulties at the other end - but this was a solid, tenacious defensive performance by Ardija and even when Tatsuhiko Kubo and his colleagues were able to make some headway, Hiroki Aratani was alert and ready to pull off some fine saves, most notably from Takayuki Yoshida's 70th-minute shot.
Eight minutes later, the first chink in the Omiya armour appeared when Yukio Tsuchiya was forced off the field through injury, necessitating something of a tactical re-shuffle as Kataoka dropped into defence alongside Toninho, Jun Marques Davidson slotting into midfield with Saito. Marinos were by this time in the ascendancy as they struggled to find an equaliser and, just when it seemed that the Squirrels would get away with a 1-0 win, Tomita was adjudged to have fouled Kubo and the referee awarded a penalty.
Naoki Matsuda made no mistake from the spot and it looked as though two vital points had been thrown away at the death. With the match moving into injury time, however, substitute Yasunari Hiraoka competed successfully for a corner kick and the heroic Yoshihara was on hand to stab the ball over the line for the winner.
A tight, disciplined defensive performance, then, that was the bedrock for a good attacking display, this was Omiya Ardija at their best. "Marinos had a lot of possession, but we didn't let them have many chances. The defence was secure and we looked good on the counter," commented Toshiya Miura afterwards. The last word, though, should definitely go to Kota Yoshihara, hero of the hour after waiting so long to be allowed to make an impact following his move from Gamba Osaka.
"Looking back on the match," he said, "I was able to play the kind of game that I like and I coped well with the physical aspect. Getting the goal was really a fantastic experience and I appreciate the support of the fans very much. I'll never forget this goal for the rest of my life."