Omiya Ardija approach Thursday's Emperor's Cup semi-final clash with Urawa Reds on a wave of confidence, following well-fought victories over Nagoya Grampus 8 and Kashima Antlers - but with something of a selection crisis facing coach Toshiya Miura. Defensive lynchpin Toninho being back in Brazil on holiday, the team can ill afford to be without one of the other leading lights of the 2005 campaign when taking on a powerful Reds side; but the suspension of Chikara Fujimoto ensured that the Squirrels' training session on Wednesday was, to a greater or lesser extent, geared towards establishing who would slot into the team in place of their playmaker.
The diminutive Yusuke Shimada - consistently impressive on his rare appearances for the first team this year - looked good during practice as well, most notably with a superb free-kick during a training match. Nevertheless, he appears likely to be overlooked in favour either of Shin Kanazawa or Satoshi Yokoyama, neither of whom would be able to play as straight replacements for Fujimoto. "We'll make a decision about who to pick based on a plan for this specific game," said the typically cautious Miura afterwards.
It should be remembered, though, that an inexperienced all-Japanese Ardija line-up managed what was a deserved win over Kashima in the quarter-finals - one that earned praise from outgoing Antlers coach Toninho Cerezo for its organisation and self-discipline. Captain Seiichiro Okuno is set to return to the side and moreover, the mood among the players appears almost as high as it has ever been during the whole of 2005. An additional motivating factor is the fact that the game is to be screened on national TV, with the resulting opportunity to put Omiya's football in front of fans across Japan something that excites the players.
"Antlers were the best side we played all season and so to have beaten them in the last round by playing our own game has given us a lot of self-confidence," said Takuro Nishimura. "Now we can go on from there - and beating Urawa will mean that our name gets heard all round the country."
Amidst all this talk of the end of the season, the Squirrels and coach Toshiya Miura have been preparing for tomorrow's Emperor's Cup quarter final tie against Kashima Antlers, to be staged in Sendai. After the extra time defeat of Nagoya Grampus 8 in the last round, Omiya will need to raise their game to get past an Antlers side that achieved a brace of comfortable 2-0 wins in the league meetings between the two sides. Moreover, the squad's attacking options are down to the bare bones after the departures of Leandro and Tuto.
But nonetheless, after a broadly successful season, the Ardija camp is a happy one as the close season proper looms just a few days away. "The players have had a bit of a break since the Nagoya game and the mood is good and relaxed now," said Miura. "As for Kashima, well, they're the type of team that play at a good level for the J-League and as such we have to learn to compete with clubs like that. It's a one-off game in the Emperor's Cup, though, so we're looking to win and go to the next round."
"The important thing is to play to our strengths," commented Masato Saito. "That means a well-organised defence that moves quickly into attack. I think we can create chances and win the game." Defender Daisuke Tomita agreed, though, that Kashima presented one of the toughest possible challenges to the men in orange. "The two leagues games against them were amongst our most difficult of the season and we could definitely tell that they were at a higher level than other clubs.
"But to compete with Kashima, we have to have our concentration levels at their best - their first touch is good throughout the side and they're quick to capitalise on any knockdowns. We've approached the training for this match with everyone feeling that we want to go on and win the tournament if we can. It would ba a fantastic Christmas present for the fans and everyone connected with the club."
Omiya Ardija take on Nagoya Grampus 8 in Shizuoka on Saturday in the last sixteen of the Emperor's Cup, knowing that a win will put the club in the last eight of the competition for the first time in its history. Following the end of the J-League season, the mood among the players has been light in training, with everyone buoyed by an end-of-year run that saw the Squirrels pick up thirteen points in the last six games to move clear of the drop zone. And so with the main business of the year out of the way, the Emperor's Cup inevitably takes on the role of a wind down, with some commentators even going so far as to say that more prestige now lies in winning the Nabisco Cup instead.
But nonetheless, it's still a competition that's there to be won, as Naoto Sakurai pointed out. "There's a fair amount of luck tied in with the Emperor's Cup, so every team is in with a chance of achieving something in it. What that means is that, although we did pretty well against Nagoya in the league, you can kind of forget about that fact when it comes to the Cup: tomorrow, whichever team plays its own game better is going to take the tie. We're all feeling relaxed and positive and are looking forward to playing a good game."
Jun Marques Davidson, meanwhile, looked back on the success of the first year in J1. "It was a good end to the J1 season and, when I look back on the year, it's been really stimulating and challenging for me as a player to match myself against top class Japanese and foreign players - that's a real step in my development. As a team, though, we have the feeling that we can steadily get better; we're obviously pleased to have achieved our main objective of staying up, but feel that we could have done more than ended up in thirteenth.
"As far as the Emperor's Cup goes, we're not thinking about the later stages of the competition now - just that, if we lose, it's the end of the season. We want to give everything in ninety minutes against Nagoya and if we play as well as we can, we have nothing to fear from them."
It was a reduced Omiya Ardija squad that took part in the final training session on Friday prior to Saturday's tricky J1 fixture at in-form Oita Trinita, with Leandro being left out in order to aid recovery following his injury against Gamba Osaka. But more positively, it's thought that the young Brazilian will be available for the final game of the league season against Yokohama F Marinos; and, moreover, that Naoto Sakurai too is on the mend, with hopes that he might subsequently be fit to take part in the later stages of any Emperor's Cup run.
Reports also indicate that Tuto is back in contention for a place at Oita, perhaps a likely starter with Manabu Wakabayashi - although many fans would argue that Hiroshi Morita has done enough in his recent substitute appearances to play his way back into the reckoning. New boy Wakabayashi has meanwhile been reflecting on the recent upturn in the club's fortunes.
"I think we've been able to win these games recently because everyone's done their job very well," he said. "For me, getting a goal in the Emperor's Cup game against Kyoto helped me to feel that I can compete at this level and that boost to my confidence has meant that I've had the opportunity to play in the league since then. Our attacking play has been looking pretty good recently and if we keep our discipline and organisation, we'll create chances. It's my job to get in attempts on goal. We're all fired up, feeling positive and looking forward to these two last league games."
More broadly, there's a feeling that Brazilian vice-captain Toninho has in particular been a driving force in enabling the Squirrels to retain their J1 place, with his commitment and focus key assets in motivating the players around him. "It's an achievement for the club to have stayed up and it's also demonstrated that it's possible to get out of bad situations," he commented. "When I look back at the run of defeats, I can't explain why we couldn't win any of those games. But when the team is all pulling together in the same direction, then we get results.
"From a personal point of view, throughout my time at the club I've always thought that Omiya could be a J1 side and after working so hard to get promotion, I wouldn't have been able to believe it if we'd gone straight back down again. We've got the chance now to finish the season with six consecutive wins, which would be a massive thing for us - but now we've achieved the goal of staying up, we need a new target."
Hot on the heels of Sunday's win at Vissel Kobe comes a very different matter, as Omiya Ardija host J1 leaders Gamba Osaka on Wednesday afternoon in what will be the last ever match to be staged at the old Omiya Koen ground before it closes for two years of re-development. Looking at the match itself, somewhat ironically it is the Squirrels who go into it on better current form, with three wins out of three contrasting sharply with Gamba's three defeats out of the last four, including a 2-1 loss at Nagoya Grampus 8 on Sunday. Araujo's goals have suddenly dried up, coinciding with a series of less convincing performances by a defence that has failed to keep a clean sheet since round 22 at the beginning of September.
Given this unexpected stumble, these must be stressful times indeed to be a Gamba supporter, as their nearest challengers now are not a Kashima Antlers side for whom playmaker Mitsuo Ogasawara has been ruled out for the rest of the season, but their own near neighbours Cerezo - a solitary point behind and on blistering form. While Gamba travel to Omiya for a match that genuinely could go either way, Cerezo are visited by the other team who have found it difficult to put a foot wrong in recent weeks, Oita Trinita; and the Antlers take on a Marinos side picking up some good results at the end of a wretched season, with Tatsuhiko Kubo at last getting back on the scoresheet at the weekend against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The situation for Squirrels fans is of course just as nail-biting at the bottom of the table, as S-Pulse will be hopeful of claiming all three points at home to relegated Vissel Kobe - a result that will see them moving above Omiya unless Toshiya Miura's men can beat Gamba. But with Kashiwa away at Sanfrecce Hiroshima - whose home form is hopeless - and the other two clubs realistically involved in the relegation battle, Nagoya Grampus 8 and Tokyo Verdy 1969, playing each other, it is clear that there could still be a number of twists and turns before all the issues are resolved.
Omiya coach Miura commented in advance of Ardija's clash with Gamba, "I think there's not much doubt that they're the strongest attacking side in the league, but we have a number of factors in our favour when it comes to Wednesday's game - firstly, we're playing the league leaders, which is always a challenge for any player. Second, we still need the points to make sure of our own safety at the bottom of the table. Thirdly, it's the last game at Omiya Koen. All of these things serve to motivate the team and we feel very strongly that this is our home. We want to win the match in front of a lot of fans."
Tatsunori Hisanaga too drew on a number of different issues that could come into play ahead of a match with implications at both ends of the J1 table. "If you include the Emperor's Cup game, we've won four on the trot now, but like the other players I agree that we're not really doing much different now when compared to the losing run," said the former Avispa Fukuoka man. "The workrate that's gone into each game has been the same, but now the key is that we have that self-confidence that comes from winning.
"In that sense, the Kashiwa result was a massive one for us, because it reaffirmed everyone's belief that we were doing the right things. Looking ahead to Gamba, the two sides are both very strongly motivated and we have to translate that into organising ourselves to beat them... as for Omiya Koen, I've been here for nearly two seasons now and the place feels like home - there are lots of good memories for me. It's pretty sad that this is the last game before redevelopment, so we want to cheer everyone up by winning."
Omiya Ardija travel to J1 wooden spooners Vissel Kobe on Sunday, knowing that the game is a potentially significant one for both sides - for a Squirrels win will enable the club to take a giant step towards securing a place in the top flight for 2006, while at the same time sending Kobe down to J2 for what would be the first time since they joined the J-League in 1997. The importance of the match is highlighted by the fact that Ardija's closest rivals for the play-off spot, Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashiwa Reysol, meet at Kashiwa in the biggest encounter of the weekend - while outsiders Tokyo Verdy 1969 must travel to Urawa Reds knowing that they really need a win to stay in the hunt.
The particular problem facing Omiya coach Toshiya Miura, however, is a possible injury crisis affecting his squad's front players. For with Yoshiteru Yamashita out long-term and Naoto Sakurai having been taken off against Nagoya Grampus 8 with a knock to his ankle, it is not good news that Tuto picked up an injury to his right knee during training and may even miss the rest of the season. To make matters worse, new star Leandro has been complaining of pains in his ankle, which must push forgotten man Hiroshi Morita back up the pecking order once again - if one assumes, of course, that Manabu Wakabayashi is now the most likely player to start in the absence of Sakurai.
"We'll really be doing ourselves a big favour if we can beat Kobe," commented Miura, "both in terms of how the league table looks now - with S-Pulse and Kashiwa playing each other - and also if you look at our remaining games. Gamba and Marinos will be really tough matches. We've got a pretty good record against Vissel this season, but they'll be giving everything they've got to try and stay up."
And with Vissel not having won for the last nine games, Ardija will scarcely have a better opportunity to put daylight between themselves and the bottom teams, going into the match as they do on the back of three consecutive league and cup victories. "On paper, you'd probably have to make us favourites now," said captain Seiichiro Okuno, "but Vissel will be fighting for the lives and we know they won't give us an easy game. Plus, it's a home match for them and they'll want to put on a good display for their fans. But we've got to concentrate on what we do best and make sure we give a good account of ourselves."
Wide man Chikara Fujimoto, meanwhile, will be going back to one of his old clubs on Sunday, having spent the 2004 season with Vissel following a year at Nagoya Grampus 8. "To be honest I'm more interested in our game than in playing against one of my former teams. The feeling among the players is good now - lighter now that we've won a couple of matches and moved away from the relegation places. But looking back, I don't think we were really doing anything wrong before; just that something wasn't quite clicking. Now we've turned that round, though, and we can go all out for the three points against Vissel."
Omiya Ardija spent Friday as usual putting the finishing touches to their preparations for another vital J1 match, this time against Nagoya Grampus 8 at the Saitama Stadium. With the team having overcome Kashiwa Reysol two weeks ago to jump out of the relegation zone, and then subsequently gone on to sneak past J2 champions-elect Kyoto Purple Sanga in the Emperor's Cup, it's with a much-needed shot of confidence that the Mighty Squirrels can approach the Nagoya game.
"There's a bit of uncertainty has been put behind us now," Toshiya Miura commented. "The mood among the players didn't change on the losing streak, but we just feel a little more settled." And the players indeed looked bright in training, working on technical points and playing keep-ball under the watchful eye of Miura and his coaching staff.
Nagoya, meanwhile, come into the match on the back of five defeats in their last six matches, at the tail-end of a season that has turned sour following the mid-term departures of coach Nelsinho and star front men Ueslei and Marques. Three places and four points ahead of the Squirrels, they're probably safe enough as far as relegation is concerned, but for Ardija this is without doubt a must-not-lose game at the very least, especially with nearest relegation rivals Kashiwa Reysol facing the stern test of a trip to Big Swan at Albirex Niigata.
"Having won the last two games, we can go into the Nagoya match in better shape," said goalkeeper Hiroki Aratani, who has somewhat unexpectedly been in and out of the side in recent weeks. "Against Reysol, we put on a good performance and got a good result and although things were a bit more mixed against Kyoto, the result is really what matters and the two wins have given the team self-confidence. To achieve our goal of J1 football next season, we just need to consider each match individually. Set plays and counter attacks are still the keys and we need to make sure we don't make any mistakes there. We've lost four consecutive home games, so it's time we gave the fans something to shout about."
Masato Saito was also asked about his own recent contribution, notably the Kashiwa game in which he partnered Jun Marques Davidson in the defensive central midfield role, but with responsibility for getting attacks started by feeding a range of players such as Naoto Sakurai, Tuto, Leandro, Tatsunori Hisanaga and of course Chikara Fujimoto. "I think I can make a decent contribution playing that kind of game. There are a good few options that I have, good attacking players and it's my job to get the ball to them with some well-timed passes."
Toshiya Miura played tribute to the experienced Saito's character, saying that, "When things are a bit under pressure, he's a good man to have on your side - lots of composure and always looking to attack." And in many respects, Saito represents the heart of Omiya, having been with the club since the NTT Kanto days, and as such it's him who one suspects would be worst affected by the idea of relegation: "It's just unthinkable after all that we've done that we might go back to J2 now..."