A week is a long time in football, and the week that lead up to Ardija's home game versus Shimizu S Pulse, had been anything but quiet.
It started with that unexpected clean sheet at Hiroshima, continued with a quite remarkable Nabisco Cup game at Nigata and all along was overshadowed by strong rumours that star player Rafael was off to Botafogo in Brazil to play for former Kashima Antlers' manager Oliveira's side. Indeed on the Thursday before the match Rafael began retweeting all the goodbye/don't leave comments he received from fans, including me! Well, it's not often I can get a retweet off a professional footballer so I joined in.
Go! Go! Omiya Ardija had already tweeted the Ardija side before I left for the stadium, and I was surprised to see Rafael named as one of the substitutes. I wondered if that was just for the fans, as any injury that he might get on the pitch, would surely jeopardize the proposed transfer.
A good crowd of over 12,000 gathered at the Nack 5 in perfect conditions for an evening kick off. As the team warmed up on the pitch, Rafael looked relaxed as he exercised with the other substitutes. Towards the end of the warm-up he moved to the centre of the penalty box and practiced volleys and half volleys with great aplomb, showing the fans what they would soon be missing.
The first half kicked off and S Pulse were very quick to settle into their stride with their passing and movement dominating the midfield and putting pressure on the Ardija defence. At one point goalkeeper Ezumi was forced into a desperate double save whilst Kikuchi headed it clear from almost under the crossbar. Shinji Ono looked full of intent in midfield and his crosses were full of danger, which Australian striker, Alex Brosque looked to get on the end of, as Shimizu did everything but find the net.
In the first half Shimizu were attacking the goal in front of the Ardija fans. Shinji Ono played at local rivals/enemy Urawa Reds earlier in his career, yet almost no fans booed or heckled him, which almost certainly would have happened in a similar situation in England. In fact, only one man booed loudly from the seats near me, and most Ardija fans looked a bit shocked at a Japanese behaving like this!
Half time came and Ardija and S Pulse were level at 0-0. The second half started and neither manager made a change. Verdenik's system of 4-4-2 had clearly benefitted the defence, who were gradually looking more and more confident as the game went on, with well timed tackles inside the penalty area, much less space afforded to opposing strikers in or near our penalty box. However the same could not be said for the front pairing of Cho and Hasegawa and eventually a change came, and happily for Ardija fans, up stepped Rafael, ready to pull on the Ardija jersey one more time. Off went Cho. The effect was almost immediate, as Rafael took up the reins and barked instructions, and got the engine up front into gear and revving nicely. Suddenly we looked dangerous. The team had shape and the midfield started to wrest control from Shimizu's players, who were starting to fade. Ono would depart the field and another ex Reds player, Takahara would come on, but Omiya entered the dying embers of the match still on equal terms with our higher placed opponents. Ardija were looking comfortable in defence and had posed some danger to the S Pulse goal. As the game entered injury time, the three substitutes all linked beautifully. Shintaro Shimizu, who on first seeing, looks full of hustle and bustle, won the ball and quickly passed to Rafael, who threaded a perfectly weighted pass to Daigo Watanabe who ran onto it and shot the ball through the legs of the S Pulse goalie and peeled away to celebrate in front of the delirious Ardija fans. Mere moments remained, and Ardija were never in danger, the ref blew his whistle and the Squirrels had their hands (paws!) on three well earned and valuable points.
Fans must have walked home happy at the 3 points but wondering just who would replace Rafael, who left the club with a reminder of his talent and presence.