SAITAMA – Omiya Ardija set a new J.League record for consecutive unbeaten games in the sweetest way possible on Saturday, beating fierce local rivals Urawa Reds 1-0 to extend their streak to 18.
Omiya headed into the game at Nack 5 Stadium tied with Kashima Antlers’ 2009 mark having last tasted league defeat on Aug. 25 last season, but there was more than just history at stake with second-place Reds leading their high-flying neighbors by only one position in the table.
The most eagerly anticipated Saitama derby of recent times may not have lived up to the hype, but no one on the orange half of the divide was complaining after the final whistle. Zlatan Ljubijankic’s first-half injury-time goal was enough to give Omiya the three points, delivering a rare slice of glory for a modest club still waiting to lift its first major trophy.
“We are not a big club, so for us this record has real significance,” said Ardija manager Zdenko Verdenik, who took over last summer with the team mired in relegation trouble. “It is evidence that everyone at this club is moving in the right direction and doing a good job.
“The previous club to hold this record was Kashima Antlers, and in the history of the J.League they are a club who have won a lot of titles and achieved a lot. For us to become a big club like Kashima, this is a good first step.”
The win lifted Omiya over Urawa into second in the table behind leaders Yokohama F. Marinos, whose perfect start to the season came to an abrupt halt with a 1-0 defeat to Albirex Niigata.
“It was a derby, and I heard when I came here that this was the biggest game,” said Slovenian striker Ljubijankic, whose goal was his third of the season. “It is maybe even more important for our fans than for us, and we are happy that we made them happy.
“Everybody believes in the team, but we go game after game. We are not looking ahead already to the end of the season. We are trying to concentrate on each game separately. I think we have quality.”
A slow start to the match was never likely with both sets of supporters ratcheting up the noise levels at the kickoff, and Omiya’s Yosuke Kataoka duly obliged with a shot that thumped off the crossbar as early as the third minute.
Urawa suffered a setback when forward Genki Haraguchi left the game on a stretcher after a 27th-minute collision with Ardija goalkeeper Takashi Kitano, and there was almost more bad news for the visitors when Ljubijankic hit the crossbar only for teammate Kosuke Kikuchi to head the rebound wide.
Before the halftime whistle could sound, however, Omiya had the lead. Daigo Watanabe played a sharp one-two with Takumi Shimohira before squaring the ball into the Urawa box, and all Ljubijankic had to do was stick out a foot to direct it over the line.
Urawa upped the tempo to dominate the second half, but finding a way through a resolute Omiya defense proved another matter as the visitors struggled to create clear-cut chances.
“This is a painful defeat,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “In previous derbies we haven’t started well, and that was the case again today. We knew that our opponents would be aggressive and come at us, but we started the match looking nervous and played too many passes sideways or backwards.
“The second half was much better for us and we were able to pin them back and play our football. But we weren’t able to make the final shot or pass count. I prepared the team in the way I thought best, so I have to take responsibility for the defeat.”
Elsewhere in the J.League, Kawasaki Frontale beat Vegalta Sendai 4-2 for their first win of the season, while FC Tokyo halted a run of four straight defeats with a 3-1 victory over Nagoya Grampus.
Kashiwa Reysol cruised to a 3-0 win over Sagan Tosu, Shimizu S-Pulse drew 1-1 with Cerezo Osaka, and defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat Jubilo Iwata 2-0 to leave the floundering Shizuoka side with only two points from seven games.
Shonan Bellmare beat fellow promoted side Oita Trinita 2-1, while Kashima Antlers drew 0-0 with Ventforet Kofu.