As the score indicates, yesterday's match was very exciting but much of the credit can go to weakness on both teams. Passes were sloppy while both keepers were a step slower than usual. Both teams relied on crosses to be finished off for goals and all but one goal per team was scored in this way. A strong attacking midfield on Okayama's side and Mito's consistent links to forward Arata were the only quality play to be seen in the game.
I worked assisting the away fans (80 strong) who came to Hitachinaka for the game. They were very concerned when in the middle of clear skies, a 30-minute pocket of severe storm came through. Strong winds blew away the tent and promotional materials, torrential rains soaked everything and everyone down to underwear and socks (which would remain uncomfortable all day), and thunder brought fear that those making the 20-hour round trip would leave with a postponed game as their memory of Ibaraki. As suddenly as it came, the storm would subside, and mild wind and sunshine would only bring fears of sunburn. For anyone wondering why the ball occasionally stopped in an invisible puddle on TV, only 3 hours before the match began, the play surface was almost entirely underwater. This is par for the course when on the beach so it will be nice when Kasamatsu becomes the secondary ground upon Mito's new stadium being completed.
Memories of the potential disaster faded as the match started, especially for the very vocal Okayama fans who are still excited about their team's success and progress in recent years. They continued yelling and chanting even when Mito opened the game with the first two goals. Forward Arata took a good pass and made a good goal, and only a few minutes later defender Ozawa made his first professional goal being open in front of the goal. As what has become unfortunately customary for Mito lately Okayama would pull it back to a draw before the half was out, and the second half would begin tied at 2. The second goal was especially painful, being an attempted sliding clear from captain Owada right into the Mito net. His missed pass against Kusatsu had cost Mito that win and tied the score at 2 apiece, and now this own goal did the same thing. He usually does well of course but in a tight standings race these mistakes are especially disappointing.
Mito would quickly bring it back with two more goals from Arata in a four minute span and continued pressure, but defensive lapses continued and Okayama scored their 3rd with twenty minutes to go. Mito still fired away and didn't try to waste time until the very end and Okayama kept trying to make it a very harrowing final fight. After a failed Okayama free kick, the final whistle blew and Mito actually held the lead for a win for the first time in a while.
Mito retains 4th place in the standings with the win of course, but a surging Sendai and surprisingly strong Tokushima are just below. The only other high-schoring encounter of the day was Tochigi's surprise 3-all draw against 3rd place Kofu, who are now just one point above Mito. There is a small cushion between the top six teams and the bottom two thirds and any of these teams could be in the top three after the next match. Even more unpredictable in that on Wednesday, Mito plays at Sendai and Shonan plays at Kofu. Given the right results, any in the top five could lead the league this time next week. As far as long term hopes go, Mito has only played (and beaten) Tokushima so far this year, and in addition to Sendai has yet to face Shonan, Osaka, and Kofu. Only if remaining in striking distance of third place after all those matches will Mito fans breathe easily and believe in promotion chances. In addition to goals, Mito also happened to lead the weekend's teams in number of shots taken, and is currently second in the league in number of goals scored and are the only team to have an average of more than 3 goals per game (for both sides) in all matches played. If you like games with shots taken and goals scored and don't care about who fires them, Mito is your team to follow.
Arata's 3-goal game made a big impact in his personal rating and he will surely end up statistical player of the round. His hat trick brings the tally of goals up to 8 for the year, two more than 2nd place Kagawa of Osaka. He had a promise of 20 goals scored for 2009 and the current pace is enough to double that. He has scored more goals this year so far than the entire squads of Yokohama, Toyama, and Tochigi. His number of goals tied Okayama not only yesterday but all year, and he's also on par with Gifu through match 10.