Wataru Endo: MD34's Man of the Matchday and VfB Stuttgart's saviour
Cometh the hour, cometh the captain. VfB Stuttgart left it late to save their top-flight status, but it was worth the wait for match-winner Wataru Endo on the final day of the season.
Back in March, Stuttgart head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo told bundesliga.com that he was “100 percent confident” that his team could stay in the league.
Midway through the second half on Matchday 34, though, the American’s faith will have been tested. Anthony Modeste had equalised for visitors Cologne on 59 minutes, while Hertha Berlin - the home side’s relegation rivals - were still leading 1-0 at Borussia Dortmund.
News of a successful Erling Haaland penalty on 68 minutes - in the Norwegian’s last game for Dortmund - would have given Matarazzo hope. Even more so, an 84th-minute goal from Youssoufa Moukoko, which condemned Hertha to defeat.
Tied at 1-1, however, Stuttgart were still headed for a relegation play-off even though Hertha were losing. Few at the club would have relished that prospect, even if it offered a second chance of survival. The last time Stuttgart played in one, after all, Union Berlin had relegated them in 2019.
Suddenly, though, Stuttgart had safety in their sights. The crowd knew it, and the players - powered by renewed energy from the stands - knew it as well. The home team had had more than enough chances to win the game, but now - in the 92nd minute - they had one more.
Giant frontman Sasa Kalajdzic had put Matarazzo’s side in front from a corner, and he was an obvious target for one final set-piece. Hiroki Ito flicked it on, however and it was his Japanese compatriot Endo who stooped to head high into the net.
Cue the wildest of celebrations, which Matarazzo was front and centre of. And cue five more minutes of injury-time, after which Stuttgart did it all again.
Watch: Stuttgart 2-1 Cologne - in 60 seconds!
Endo had seen similar scenes before - albeit not quite on the same scale. The holding midfielder joined from Belgian side Sint-Truiden in 2019, helping the Reds to return to the Bundesliga a year after their play-off defeat against Union.
The 29-year-old became a crucial screen in front of the defence in the first season back, scoring three times in 33 starts as the promoted side finished a comfortable ninth.
Matarazzo made him captain for 2021/22, which Endo started after helping Japan to a fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Yokohama native again missed only one league game, and he also started the surge that ultimately got Stuttgart out of trouble. With his side 2-0 down at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 25, an Endo strike set the ball rolling for a sensational comeback in a 3-2 win.
That put a stop to the Swabians’ nine-match winless run, although it still looked like that they might have snapped out of their slump a little too late. All the more so, when they lost 2-0 in Berlin and fell four points behind Hertha after Matchday 31.
However, a season that started with an Endo goal - the opener in a 5-1 thumping of Greuther Fürth - would end with one too.
“It’s unbelievable, how the stadium exploded after the second goal,” Endo said after his last-gasp winner against Cologne. “I can’t be any happier.”
Watch: Wataru Endo on Stuttgart's last-gasp escape
How fitting it was that Stuttgart’s No. 3 would be the hero. No player in the Bundesliga won more duels than him this season (448), only six carried out more intensive runs, and only seven covered more ground.
Endo epitomised Stuttgart’s fight to a not-so-bitter end. The three-time Bundesliga champions have had plenty of magic moments in their history, but the Japanese star’s fourth goal of 2021/22 is right up there.
Or, as Matarazzo put it: “You never forget a moment like today.”
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