Omiya Ardija made it six games undefeated, with the notable scalp of Albirex Niigata added to a growing list in Saturday evening's J1 "orange derby" at Komaba. Although the Squirrels scored two goals in a league game for the first time this season, Robert Verbeek's side weren't entirely convincing and, but for a very questionable sending-off late in the first half, the scoreline could have been different.
Indeed, Ardija were probably slightly second best during the opening period, although there were some fine efforts from Takuro Nishimura, Chikara Fujimoto - and especially front man Kota Yoshihara, who nearly scored after a mazy dribble that concluded with his shot being barely tipped around the post by Swans keeper Takashi Kitano. But the change of impetus which the game - and maybe Omiya's entire season - needed came when the away side were reduced to ten men. In what looked like a straightforward 50-50 challenge, Niigata midfielder Toshihiro Matsushita seemed raise his foot a little on Terukaza Tanaka and got his marching orders.
Woohoo! pt 1
Disappointingly, in spite of the numerical advantage, coach Verbeek sent his team out for the second half keeping the 4-5-1 formation and persevered without reward until the introduction on 66 minutes of forward Hiroshi Morita for defensive midfield man Masato Saito. As those familiar with the man would expect, Morita did nothing more helpful to the team effort than pick up a booking, but nevertheless it was clear that Ardija were more threatening playing 4-4-2.
And shortly after the introduction of the second striker, Omiya took the lead through another piece of luck. Big defender Leandro bizarrely tried to score from well inside his own half, but the ball hit a Niigata defender only to drop kindly for Daigo Kobayashi to put Yoshihara in to score off the keeper. Cue excessive noise from an excessive crowd of over 16,500. But then the home team fell fast asleep for a period of about five minutes. The ever-dangerous Edmilson hit the bar from a free kick to set the alarm bells ringing - and sure enough, Albirex defender Mitsuru Chiyotanda then caught out Hiroki Aratani with a near-post header that Omiya's skinheaded keeper should really have saved.
Woohoo! pt 2
Having been pegged back to 1-1, the men in orange attacked with more freqency and more threat. Kota Yoshihara nearly scored again and then in the 88th minute Daigo Kobayashi once again produced a sublime cross that was headed home by an ecstatic Manabu Wakabayashi - who had only moments earlier come on to the field as a substitute for Tanaka. Morita nearly scored again in injury time and the massed ranks of the Squirrel Nation had a nervous few moments when their team, having played more than half the match against ten men, elected to kill time with a spot of keep-ball near the corner flag.
And in front of the largest-ever crowd for an Omiya fixture at Komaba - one that took the total number of fans to have attended Ardija J-League home games to over one million - everything seemed to fall into place. A Niigata team weakened by injury and suspension, some help from the officials as well as lady luck... perhaps it's payback for all those early-season sendings-off, but Omiya Ardija are continuing their slow climb up the J1 table.