Following the end of a scuffling, scrapping J1 season, Omiya Ardija return to action on Saturday in what will be a fifth encounter of 2006 with Jubilo Iwata. In the league, a 2-1 victory at Komaba in July thanks to a late Naoto Sakurai winner was followed in October by a reverse scoreline defeat, Chikara Fujimoto on target from the penalty spot for Ardija. The two Nabisco Cup group games back in April, however, saw the Squirrels come away empty-handed on both occasions and it has to be said that Jubilo have generally had the upper-hand in games between the two teams, in particular via their midfield superiority.
But the post-season Emperor's Cup gives Toshiya Miura a chance to go out on a high before he departs as coach, and thoughts will be in everyone's minds of last year's tremendous run to the semi-finals and a gutsy display against eventual winners Urawa Reds that featured Yosuke Kataoka's tremendous long-range goal. "Looking at the Jubilo game," commented Miura, "they have a good record against us and have a quality group of players - but we've finished our league fixtures on a real high and are in good shape going into the cup tie."
"It's a real source of frustration that we haven't been able to achieve our goals for the season," said Masato Saito. "The Emperor's Cup is a chance to redress the balance and although we haven't had great results against Jubilo this year, there have been enough promising signs in our play to suggest that we can beat them and go on to have a good tournament." Team-mate Manabu Wakabayashi echoed Saito's feelings about the campaign just finished. "It's always bad news for a forward to get in the team and then not be able to score. Overall as a team, though, I think our midfield play improved towards the end of the year and if we can execute that kind of performance we can improve on 2005."
There's a curious atmosphere surrounding Saturday's match at Albirex Niigata, Omiya Ardija's last fixture of the 2006 league season. The news that it will be the final appearance in a Squirrels shirt by Toninho - a genuine legend in the history of the club - makes it a far more significant encounter than might otherwise be the case, but elsewhere the mood is one of rather nervous anticipation.
Some announcements of squad departures have already been issued; defenders Kazuyoshi Mikami and Yasunari Hiraoka will leave having in all honesty made little impact upon the team in terms of regular first XI action, and goalkeepers Tomoyasu Ando and Nobuhisa Kobayashi have also been allowed to leave. Tatsunori Hisanaga will return to Avispa Fukuoka at the end of his extended loan spell, arguably more likely to be missed now than at any time during his time in Saitama, having turned in some improved displays in the latter part of the season.
One reason for the combination of uncertainty and intrigue is the fact that, despite the fact that six players will definitely be leaving, it has to be assumed that coach Toshiya Miura will also go - and that his successor will have his own views on the squad members who remain on the books. If, for example, Pierre Littbarski were to be appointed, what type of player would he bring with him, and which of the current batch would he also discard?
Alison has perhaps been rather unlucky since arriving at the club, curiously treated by Miura as all new arrivals tend to be and then showing bursts of tremendous play when eventually selected. But injury means that he is now not likely to appear again in an orange shirt before his loan deal expires - which scarcely augurs well for his chances of being offered a new contract.
So the club, the players and Toshiya Miura potentially find themselves in something of a quandary before the match at Big Swan, eminently winnable although with Hiroshi Morita odds on to continue up front with Daigo Kobayashi, goals may be in short supply. The team has come out of the horrific period of form that laid waste all of the autumn, but their erratic form still leaves far too many question marks. A win in Niigata will at least draw a line under the 2006 season - and allow Toninho to sign off in an appropriate manner.
Give Us A Home Win, Mr Miura... Please? - Cerezo Preview
Just three days after Omiya Ardija came from behind to claim a tremendous win at the Big Eye against Oita Trinita is the team's final home league match of 2006, when they host Cerezo Osaka at Saitama Stadium. A few short weeks ago, this fixture was potentially a vital one, but the gap between even a Squirrels side in decline and the bottom three has eventually proved too great to make up. From an Orange point of view, therefore, the main significance of the match is to see if Toshiya Miura and his players can deliver to the Omiya faithful what would be a first home win since the end of July.
Cerezo Osaka will nevertheless be looking for the win that will mean that they stay out of the automatic relegation places and are able to participate in a play-off against the third-place side in J2 to confirm their status in the higher division. In seeking to avoid the drop, last year's title challengers are in direct competition with Avispa Fukuoka, a point behind them and away at Nagoya Grampus 8 - but in fact, Cerezo's recent form is respectable enough, with only one defeat at home to Jubilo Iwata in the last eight matches.
That said, the Flaming Pinks do tend to concede more than their fair share of goals, which would suggest that if the Squirrels' stuttering attack is able to make its connections with the creative elements in the midfield, there may be an opportunity for Hiroshi Morita et al to boost the season's meagre Goals For tally. With rumours now beginning to circulate more widely that coach Miura will be on the way out of the Ardija hot seat at the end of the season, as has so often been the case in recent months it is almost the case that Squirrels fans are torn between the straightforward desire to see the team win and play well, while at the same time knowing that a continuation of Miura's tenure as coach is unlikely to bear fruit as far as an overall longer-term improvement in the quality and standing of the team are concerned.
Can Rudderless Squirrels Find The Way Home? - Oita Preview
Omiya Ardija's long-suffering supporters have the opportunity to put behind them the disaster of Saturday's humiliation at the hands of Kashima Antlers with a holiday fixture at mid-table Oita Trinita on Thursday. There were so few positives to take out of the Antlers match that it effectively provides the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again - although whether Toshiya Miura is the type of coach who can take that opportunity is open to question.
An issue as regards team selection facing Miura is whether or not to change a fundamentally settled side in response to the 3-0 defeat. He must consider whether the poor performance was as a result of a misdirected tactical approach, underperforming individuals or a combination of the two. But this may be a difficult task, in the light of a season of what for the Squirrels coach must amount to unexpected disappointment.
For the changes that he imposed upon the team following on from a promising first season at the top level have by and large backfired. The strikers have been chopped and changed, none of the combinations especially functioning well but Saul Martinez and Kota Yoshihara both major signings who have proved notably unsuccessful; Yoshiyuki Kobayashi has been a new addition to the midfield who has turned out to be unconvincing at best; and it is unclear what Yasuhiro Hato has added to defensive area of the squad.
But all of these issues have been season-long factors impacting upon the effectiveness of the team and there are three further games to play under exactly these same circumstances. The supporters have seen better displays recently against JEF United and Shimizu S-Pulse, and the inability of Miura and the players to build upon those matches has been frustrating, but scarcely a surprise.
Oita's own recent form is actually also less than impressive, with defeats away at Ventforet Kofu at the weekend and at home to Nagoya Grampus 8 the Saturday before. Despite having failed to find the net in either match, Chamusca's team nevertheless boast something of which Toshiya Miura can only dream: a genuine strike duo, in the shape of speedy Shota Matsuhashi and powerful top scorer Daiki Takamatsu, who following the departure of Magno Alves in the close season have gone onto notch a respectable 22 goals between them. A point under such circumstances would be nothing short of a relief to all Ardija fans.
Ahead of Saturday's J1 encounter between Omiya Ardija and Kashima Antlers, there can be no doubt that both teams have suffered a disappointing 2006 season. While the Squirrels have performed only very intermittently and have struggled to incorporate new players into the rigours of coach Toshiya Miura's defensive system, Kashima have coped poorly with the departure at the end of last year of long-standing coach Toninho Cerezo, strikers Alex Mineiro and Atsushi Yanagisawa in particular suffering a bad run of form.
Omiya were aiming for a top seven finish, whereas the Antlers would always seek to be among the teams challenging for the title. One win in eleven is, however, the sort of form that has seen Ardija slump to fifteenth in the division and Kashima have just come out of a run of four straight defeats that included a 4-0 humiliation at home to JEF United.
Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism in both camps ahead of an interesting-looking game, as Antlers last weekend recorded a 3-1 win over Gamba Osaka and the Squirrels' improved displays have resulted in a victory at JEF and an impressive draw last weekend at Shimizu S-Pulse. "There were quite a few instances in the S-Pulse match when I was able to get forward on the overlap. We played well and, I think, that was much closer to the type of performance that we've envisaged for ourselves throughout the season," suggested defender Yasuhiro Hato. "The team had targets for the year but haven't met them, so our motivation for the last four matches of the season is high because we still want to finish in the best position that we can."
From Omiya's perspective, the partnership between Alison and Daigo Kobayashi - while by no means telepathic - is bearing fruit due in the main to the combination of speed, vision and accuracy of service that the two provide. But Chikara Fujimoto has returned to add his wise head to the midfield and the defence has demonstrated more of the stability that has been missing throughout most of the season.
"In recent games, we've been better at keeping the defence secure whilst at the same time developing our attacking ideas," commented Fujimoto. "We've kept our shape, kept possession and put together counter-attacks much more effectively. But Kashima will give us a test, because their attack is good and they have quality individuals. What we need to be able to do is to compete on an individual basis, player to player."
It's to be hoped that colleague Hato's remarks ring true and that Miura is able to coax some positive displays out of his players, if only to re-pay the orange supporters for their loyalty during the year. The fans will be keen to see more of Alison's determination and pace, especially if they can lead to the commodity so clearly lacking from the Squirrels' play in 2006 - goals.
After last weekend's narrow win over YKK AP in the Emperor's Cup, the some-might-say-less-than-Mighty Squirrels return to J1 action on Saturday with a tough-looking fixture at fourth-place Shimizu S-Pulse. The dark days of the teams' autumn losing streak may be in the past following the excellent performance at JEF United, but the feeling remains that this season, which promised so much, is nevertheless one that is limping to a close. Cerezo Osaka and Avispa Fukuoka need to make up fully nine points in the five remaining fixtures in order to put Omiya in relegation trouble, and a combination of dull tactics from coach Toshiya Miura and frustratingly error-strewn performances have doubtless encouraged the crowds to stay away.
One bright spot in the last few weeks has been the arrival on the first team scene of wide man Hayato Hashimoto, who notched up his debut senior goal against YKK to cap a good performance with a cracking free-kick. It's to be hoped that the player is given a run in the side until the end of the season so as to develop his experience and confidence that he can be a key member of the team, and that it is possible for the Squirrels to play creative football even without Daigo Kobayashi or Chikara Fujimoto, who seems still not to have been able to shake off properly the injury that has dogged him for much of the season.
Ardija prepared for Saturday's game with a midweek friendly draw against Thespa Kusatsu, in which Kota Yoshihara scored the team's single goal a matter of seconds after kick-off. That match and subsequent training sessions would seem to suggest that the Daigo Kobayashi / Alison partnership is likely to be retained in Shizuoka, despite Manabu Wakabayashi's first goal of the season against YKK.
But while Omiya supporters ponder endlessly the conundrum that is the team's attacking formation, Yukio Tsuchiya has been looking elsewhere: "One of the problems we've had recently is simply being unable to keep a clean sheet and that obviously doesn't make it easy to go on and win games," he commented. "We want to play a good tough defensive game tomorrow, because that will give us something to build on."
Opponents S-Pulse may currently be in fourth, but their form is less than sparkling, perhaps underlining the extent to which the teams out of the top and the bottom three are really not too dissimilar in quality. Korean striker Cho Jae Jin has been finding the net less frequently, although Marquinhos has somewhat taken over as the main striker for the other men in orange; but this slight modification in approach does nothing to disguise the fact that the team haven't won a game since the beginning of October and two weeks ago were well beaten at Gamba Osaka. To see Hashimoto unlock the Shimizu defence and a result to match the JEF United game would surely give Omiya's long-suffering followers something to cheer about.
After last week's disappointing defeat via a single goal in the opening seconds of the match against FC Tokyo, Omiya Ardija return to action this Sunday in the unlikely surrounds of Akita prefecture, where - in line with the JFA's bizarre policy for staging Emperor's Cup matches - they participate for the first time this season in Japan's premier knock-out competition. Their opponents are not, as one might imagine, Tohoku League champions and local favourites TDK Akita, but rather the Toyama-based corporate JFL side YKK AP. Riding high in the semi-pro third tier, there is little doubt that YKK are exactly the kind of side that a so-called bigger club currently experiencing a crisis of confidence would want to avoid.
Squirrels striker Manabu Wakabayashi played YKK on a number of occasions when with Tochigi SC and observed, "For some reason we always tended to beat YKK by a single goal when I played against them with Tochigi, but they were a good side - a team who really don't like to lose games. They finished second in the JFL last year and are third at the moment, and in Mitsuru Hasegawa have a decent player, a striker who links up well with the midfield. At Tochigi we were always wary of Hiroki Kishida as well, because YKK are a team whose strengths lie in attack."
All the indications are that Ardija coach Toshiya Miura will face the challenge of overcoming non-league opposition by making at least some modifications. Formations adopted in training would suggest that although Alison and Daigo Kobayashi will continue up front, Hayato Hashimoto is to come in for Tatsunori Hisanaga for a rare first-team start in midfield, with Takuro Nishimura taking Yasuhiro Hato's defensive position.
But remarks such as, "We'd like to give more of an opportunity to players on the fringe of the first team, balancing with that desire that fact that we want to win a game against a JFL team and take that back into our league form," would seem to add weight to suggestions that the likes of U21 international squad member Terukazu Tanaka may even get a call-up. What a shame that so few Omiya supporters will get the chance to see it at first hand.