I decided not to make the drive up to Sendai because I need to get up very early for work tomorrow... Unless I am physically some kind of unlucky charm, it was an incredibly sad mistake.
Mito just defeated Sendai for the first time in 27 meetings going back almost a decade, and did it in front of 13,000 fired up Sendai fans at Yurtec Stadium.
Just as the first two meetings this year the game was hot and competitive with dozens of dramatic moments and nearly capitalized chances. Just as the first two meetings, I feel that this is easily the must-see match this round in Japan. No real missed passes or serious mistakes, just two teams going all out in all aspects of the game.
The game was press and defense heavy for most of the first half with the game remaining scoreless for the first forty minutes. At forty-two, though, Mito momentarily lapsed into a 1-on-1 defense that allowed a surging Ryang Yong-Gi to one-touch a cross into the net for a one goal lead. It looked like the half would end with Sendai up, but Mito would only be behind in the game for about 2 minutes. Midfielder Akahoshi was able to exploit a gap in the Sendai defense and send a shot through the keeper's hand to make it even at halftime.
Mito would take the lead in the second half in extraordinary fashion. After half a period of close chances on both sides, a long ball sent near the Sendai penalty area was intercepted by three people: two Sendai defenders and Mito forward Arata. The two Sendai defenders jumped toward the ball with one leg extended, but Arata swung around his left leg UNDERNEATH the defenders as if a martial arts foot sweep, and fired the ball into the far top corner of the net. It's probably the best assisted goal I've ever seen.
Mito would face an unfortunate event ten minutes later, when defender Owada slid to clear a ball in the penalty area and it hit his outstretched arm. Called and carded with a handball, Sendai's Nadison converted the penalty kick to tie the game again.
The game seemed destined for a hotly contested yet well-deserved draw, but the referee signaled a full four minutes of injury time. With only about two minutes to go, an Ozawa long ball landed among Arata and a Sendai defender. The Sendai defender touched the ball but Arata immediately stripped it away, and fired off-balance to bring Mito a very memorable goal and win.
The Mito-Sendai series has turned out to be the closest, biggest scoring, and most passionately played in Japan this year. 18 goals means an average of 6 per game and 3 per team each game, and indeed Mito scored 3 times in each encounter. Watching the games individually as well as in a row, the story told is as complex and enthralling as opera or pro wrestling. Big vs. small, heart and guts vs. the established power, huge unlikely comebacks, retribution... A simply stated 1-1-1 record has never so inadequately shown the thrill of tight competition.
Arata's two goals bring him up to 16 for the year and tied for 3rd in the league. As amazing as they were today, The quality midfielding, ball control, and pressing won the game for Mito in the end.
Mito fans are of course overjoyed, but surely Shonan fans are happy after a narrow win as well as Yamagata fans who watch in an off week and Cerezo fans who saw their team lose to the champion Hiroshima team. With this Sendai loss, the race for 2nd place and J1 promotion is much tighter. Of course, Mito isn't mathematically eliminated from promotion possibility YET...