On J League 2012 final day Albirex Niigata came from the dead to save their J1 lives. Winning against the woeful Consadole Sapporo 4-1 in front of 28055 loyal fans wasn’t enough. Niigata also needed results to go their way on the final day. Amazingly Gamba Osaka lost 2-1 to Jubilo Iwata while Vissel Kobe fell to champions Hiroshima 1-0.
Braving 3-5 degrees weather and torrential rain, fans at Big Swan Stadium didn’t have to wait long before seeing goals for the locals. In the 8th minute a long, high ball floated into the box and Sapporo failed to defend it adequately. Defender Shusuke Tsubouchi was loitering in the nose bleed section and simply swiveled and shot. Next up Bruno Lopes angled a header home after a corner was poorly defended. Niigata went to the break 2-nil up and in position to remain in J1 due to Kobe and Hiroshima being tied at 0-0 while Gamba Osaka were 0-1 away to Jubilo Iwata. But nobody was celebrating at this stage.
It wasn’t long before Niigata fans were placed back on the precipice of elimination. In the 53rd minute 19 year old Shota Sakaki got on the end of a through ball and punished the locals bringing the deficit back to one goal. At the very same moment Sapporo scored, Gamba Osaka levelled at Iwata and the Niigata faithful were truly being forced to consider a life outside J1. Realists would be saying ‘I told you so’ and besides, Jubilo Iwata had nothing to play for. Fortunately this bad news was fused with some good. Hiroshima had gone ahead in Kobe in the 52nd minute. Scores remained the same at all grounds until Niigata’s Alan Miniero smashed a rocket past the Sapporo keeper from around 30 metres out. The Brazilian shimmied and stepped over to put an opposing defender into blur, shaking him enough to create room for launch. Bang! The back of the net rippled and Niigata’s rabid fans were in raptures. The orange had done their job, now it was all in the hands of the gods.
Kobe couldn’t find a way back against the champions, meanwhile Endo netted for Gamba Osaka only to be ruled offside. But in the 85th minute despite continued raids on the Jubilo Iwata goal it was Iwata who scored via Yuki Kobayashi. Niigata fans could celebrate this goal like one of their own. And after the great escape much thanks should be heaped on manager Masaaki Yanagishita who took over mid season and turned Niigata into a team that were simply hard to beat. Yanagishita went back to basics and ensured that scoring against Niigata was difficult and just like other teams lacking star signings like Sagan Tosu they experienced some success, enough success to survive the drop.
Elsewhere Urawa Reds rescued there ACL ticket by downing a Nagoya Grampus who simply weren’t worthy of a top 3 placing. The Reds were also aided by Yokohama’s defeat of Sagan Tosu. Tosu from Kyushu will be joined by another of their west Japan rivals in J1 next season with Oita Trinita winning their way into the J League via the first ever J1 promotion play-off a fortnight ago.
Stayed tuned over the coming weeks with more news from Japanese soccer via the Emperors Cup which offers a place in the ACL to the winner.