After what felt like countless episodes of agony, watching everyone's favourite fictional Japanese football team struggling against the countless waves of the Osaka Gunners, last week's episode finally took pity on us as the fruits of Tatsumi's labours and his master plan finally blossomed, with East Tokyo United pulling one goal back, seeing predatory forward Hauer booked, and Kubota and Hiraga dead on their feet.
What's more, the previous episode left us with the ever-energetic Tsubaki winning a free kick in a dangerous position thanks to the aforementioned fatigue of Hiraga - a foul which finally wakes Osaka coach Dulfer up to the fact that things really aren't working out, and forcing him to make two further defensive substitutions in the hope of holding onto their 2-1 lead. However, these changes are reckoning without the dangers of ETU's free kick just outside the box, and moments later a dummy by Akasaki and a beautifully delivered ball into the box from Gino sees centre-back Sugi leap like a salmon (oh, how I've been waiting to use that phrase in my Giant Killing posts) to thump home the equaliser with his head. Cue delirium in the crowd, and this writer jumping out of his seat in celebration.
With the tide turned and any momentum now well and truly in their favour, the remainder of the game couldn't be more different from that first half of constant Osaka attacks, with the visitors desperately wasting time and trying to hold possession to stop East Tokyo United from exposing them with further attacks, while even their rare attempts to counter are soon snuffed out by the robust tackling and interceptions of their opponents. With the ninety minutes up, it looks as though time might have run out for the home side to grab a shock winner, but four minutes of injury time means that the game isn't up just yet. Enter Sugi - still filled with self-doubt about his abilities (or lack thereof) from earlier in the series yet, as Tatsumi explains, the player's knowledge of his limitations is actually what makes him a useful and instinctive player on the field. So it proves, as with literally the last kick of the game a near-suicidal diving header onto a loose ball bouncing around the box snatches a last-gasp goal for ETU, and a 3-2 win that leaves opposing coach Dulfer fuming but with no choice but to acknowledge his own errors in sticking with his attacking instincts for far too long when that game was already up for his team.
So, we still have one episode to go, but I can't think of a more satisfying way to end this particular story arc and penultimate instalment - two goals, a little more introspection from key players, and a well-rounded glimpse at the live football experience as we snatch reactions not just from players and coach, but also the fans, journalists and cameramen dotted around the ground. This particular way of delivering a "realistic" experience isn't one I've covered or concerned myself with too much during this series (although it's always been present), but on this occasion in particular I have to acknowledge it for doing its bit to ramp up the tension and differing viewpoints throughout the stadium. Above all, in a weekend where I had to watch my own team drop two points to a 94th (practically 95th) minute goal, it was nice to watch a game where the "right" team snagged the incredibly late goal to turn things around. Being stuck with "real" football alone once this series is over is looking quite depressing, really.