If proof were ever required as to what a thrilling league the J-League can be, one need look no further than the events of the last few days. If Mito Hollyhock's sensational 2-1 midweek win over runaway J2 leaders Consadole Sapporo were not enough, a pulsating Saitama derby on Saturday evening then saw relegation-threatened Omiya Ardija get the better of champions-elect Urawa Reds in front of almost 50,000 fans. Hiroshi Morita's goal may have been a hammer blow to Reds' hopes of retaining their title, but also gives the men in orange a lifeline in their fight to remain in the top division.
But it almost never happened. Talking about Morita after the draw against Kashiwa Reysol, coach Satoru Sakuma admitted that the big forward's performance in the infamous 6-0 reserve team thrashing by Urawa at the beginning of August had been so poor that he was subsequently told in no uncertain terms either to improve or look for a new club. Sakuma indicated that this led to a marked change in Morita's attitude in training, which ultimately led to a way back into the first team at home to Reysol.
Celebrating with the Squirrel Nation
The striker himself said that he played against the Sun Kings as if it was the last match of his career and although his performance that night received mixed reviews, he retained his place up front alongside Denis Marques for the Reds game. Elsewhere, the absence though suspension of both Chikara Fujimoto and Kota Yoshihara meant that Daigo Kobayashi and Hayato Hashimoto played as the wide men in midfield, with Naoya Saeki coming in for Yosuke Kataoka in the middle.
And the outcome of this shake-up in personnel doesn't get any better if you're a Squirrel - beating the deadly local rivals away with a thoroughly deserved victory that just may keep Omiya from the drop. Although the usual anti-Omiya flags were conspicuous by their absence, the atmosphere at Saitama Stadium was extremely hostile, with each Ardija player - especially former Reds Takuro Nishimura and substitute Naoto Sakurai - receiving abuse from the crowd. Indeed, the latter was so wound up that he almost had a fight with Urawa keeper Ryota Tsuzuki.
Omiya started off well - harrying, closing down the Urawa attackers and launching their own counter-attacks with regularity. Hashimoto had the best chance of the first half when he was clean through and about to pull the trigger, but the ball was taken off him and the danger passed. Leandro also had a long range free-kick that Ryota Tsuzuki did well to save.
This photo makes GGOA laugh, for some mysterious reason
But at the other end, Squirrels keeper Koji Ezumi put in a magnificent evening's work. In the first half, Leandro lost possession resulting in Tatsuya Tanaka having a clean run on goal. Ezumi, so often the weak link for Ardija in recent games, made a great save with an outstretched leg to turn the ball around for a corner. Nevertheless, it was Omiya who finished the first half on top with several more counter-attacks down the right through Daigo and Nishimura.
Morita's priceless winner came in the 60th minute, when Leandro ran out of defence to the edge of Urawa's penalty area. The Brazilian defender then squared it to Morita, who slid an angled shot past the helpless Tsuzuki - a cue for absolute bedlam to break out amongst the select group of supporters wearing orange. Omiya nearly added to their score when Hashimoto had a diving header just over after a cross from Yasuhiro Hato. In what was the first match of the league season where Reds have failed to score, star defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka hit the bar near the end, but Koji Ezumi's overall performance earned him that small slice of luck and the Squirrels deserved to steal all three points.