A cold and stormy Big Swan provided the venue for Omiya Ardija to finish 2006 in an altogether sunnier frame of mind on Saturday afternoon, as goals from Chikara Fujimoto and top scorer Daigo Kobayashi gave the Squirrels a 2-1 win over Albirex Niigata. Those three points enable outgoing coach Toshiya Miura to claim the season as being a slight improvement on 2005, as his team finished ahead of FC Tokyo and Niigata in twelfth position.
Alison's hamstring injury was the rubber stamp for Hiroshi Morita to start in one of the striker roles and Hayato Hashimoto was awarded a place in favour of Fujimoto. But the focus of attention as far as the Omiya line-up was concerned fell upon Toninho, wearing an Ardija shirt for the final time and feted by the travelling band of supporters from Saitama.
It was the visitors' goal that was under pressure in the early stages, though, as Albirex danger man Shingo Suzuki fired in a free kick to force a save out of Hiroki Aratani in only the second minute. Daigo Kobayashi nevertheless then fed Morita three minutes later for a scoring opportunity at the other end, but the pizza-faced striker was unable to get his shot on target, as the game developed into a well-balanced encounter despite the poor weather conditions.
Hiroki Aratani dives into action
Kisho Yano came closest to breaking the deadlock as in 28th minute he momentarily escaped the clutches of Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya, but Aratani was alert to the danger and overall Omiya's defence was tight and well-focused. Closer to half-time, though, Albirex had the better possession and pressure - Hashimoto's off-target 32nd-minute free-kick notwithstanding - and although the first period ended goalless it was the hosts who were very much on top.
Tatsunori Hisanaga made way for Chikara Fujimoto at the break, as Toshiya Miura attempted to introduce a more positive aspect to Ardija's tactical approach. And just two minutes after the re-start, the change paid dividends in the most dramatic style as Fujimoto converted a loose ball in the Niigata area following a Daigo free-kick to give Omiya the lead.
Chikara goes into celebration mode
In addition to the goal, Fujimoto's impact upon the overall play was deeply significant, as the Squirrels' midfield came more into the match and began to create more in the way of goalscoring opportunities. On 57 minutes, Daigo and Morita combined for Chikara once again to get in an attempt on goal with a neat shot, although keeper Takashi Kitano on this occasion made the save.
Just five minutes later, however, and the Squirrels' superiority was translated into a goals when Yoshiyuki Kobayashi supplied his namesake Daigo down the right and, with a terrific piece of individual skill, he beat Kitano from the tightest of angles. With Omiya now in control of the match, the normally passionate Niigata support were further quietened when in 73rd minute Edmilson beat Toninho in the challenge, only for the alert Aratani to snuff out the chance.
Hiroshi Morita actually gets in a header. On the opposition goal
The only disappointment came when Fabinho's injury time consolation goal meant that Toninho was unable to bring down the curtain on his Squirrels career with a shutout, but in the end Omiya were well worth the win on the basis of an impressive second half display. 2006 therefore came to an end with three straight victories for Toshiya Miura: some satisfaction, following a frustrating campaign.
But the next few weeks will be vital ones indeed for Ardija, as the search for Miura's replacement gathers pace - and players fight for a position in the 2007 squad, via the showcase that is the Emperor's Cup. And with Toninho now off the scene for good, how about a starting place for Terukazu Tanaka against Jubilo Iwata?