The curtain finally came down on Omiya Ardija's 2006 campaign at the Yamaha Stadium, Iwata, on Saturday afternoon, when despite dominating a very large proportion of the game, the Squirrels were eliminated from the Emperor's Cup thanks to a single goal from Jubilo substitute Norihiro Nishi. In what turned out to be his last game in charge of the club, coach Toshiya Miura made some necessary changes to the line-up that won at Albirex Niigata last weekend, but characteristically remained loyal to the small number of players whom he has elected to use in the first team this season.
And so it was Seiichiro Okuno who came in for the now-departed Toninho in central defence alongside Yukio Tsuchiya, although in midfield up-and-coming star Hayato Hashimoto was selected ahead of Fukuoka-bound Tatsunori Hisanaga. Daigo Kobayashi also slotted back into midfield, leaving Chikara Fujimoto most unusually to play in a more advanced position alongside fans' favourite Hiroshi Morita.
Two minutes in, though, and it seemed for all the world as if this was just about the most natural Ardija formation one could imagine, as Fujimoto was brought down just outside the area and a delicious curving Daigo free-kick came within inches of giving the men in white an early lead. Shortly afterwards, Morita fed Hashimoto on the left and the wide man's quick cross was met by Fujimoto, whose first-time effort was well saved by an alert Yuhei Sato in the Jubilo goal.
And the opening 45 minutes continued in much the same vein, as Omiya's defence easily coped with the timid home attack, leaving Daigo and Hashimoto ample time and space to set up counter after counter at the other end. Despite the promptings of the Squirrels' creative midfield pairing, however, neither Fujimoto nor Morita were able to open the scoring - and despite the amount of possession that they had enjoyed, Ardija were still only on level terms with their hosts when the half-time whistle blew.
Not surprisingly after such an essentially positive display from his team, coach Miura could only ask for more of the same and made no changes at the break. His opposite number Adilson tried to coax a more positive effort from Jubilo, but again it was Omiya who looked the brighter of the two teams after the re-start, as Hashimoto worked his left-wing magic only for Morita to head weakly into the arms of Sato.
As has so often been the case for the 2006 vintage Ardija team, though, chances missed by Morita et al at one end became all the more significant on 56 minutes, when Nishi exploited a gap in the defence to grab a goal for Jubilo that was utterly against the run of play. Toshiya Miura reacted quickly by withdrawing the hapless Morita in favour of Hisanaga, before bolstering the midfield with Masato Saito for Yoshiyuki Kobayashi.
Hisanaga it was who came close to netting an equaliser when put through by Fujimoto in 74th minute, only for the excellent Sato to deny him a shooting opportunity. Soon afterwards, with the game and Toshiya Miura's time as coach of Omiya Ardija winding down to a disappointing conclusion, the forgotten Kota Yoshihara received an unexpected call-up as a replacement for Yosuke Kataoka - but the Squirrels were unable to get the goal that their performance undoubtedly deserved and slipped out of the competition.
Miura had ample reason to be satisfied and later commented that the team had done exactly as he'd asked, keeping quiet the Jubilo front pairing of Yoshiaki Ota and Ryoichi Maeda whilst conversely looking dangerous on the break. But a lack of end product renders all the positive football in the world meaningless, and it's to be hoped that this is a lesson that can be learned by Omiya Ardija 2007.
A cold and stormy Big Swan provided the venue for Omiya Ardija to finish 2006 in an altogether sunnier frame of mind on Saturday afternoon, as goals from Chikara Fujimoto and top scorer Daigo Kobayashi gave the Squirrels a 2-1 win over Albirex Niigata. Those three points enable outgoing coach Toshiya Miura to claim the season as being a slight improvement on 2005, as his team finished ahead of FC Tokyo and Niigata in twelfth position.
Alison's hamstring injury was the rubber stamp for Hiroshi Morita to start in one of the striker roles and Hayato Hashimoto was awarded a place in favour of Fujimoto. But the focus of attention as far as the Omiya line-up was concerned fell upon Toninho, wearing an Ardija shirt for the final time and feted by the travelling band of supporters from Saitama.
It was the visitors' goal that was under pressure in the early stages, though, as Albirex danger man Shingo Suzuki fired in a free kick to force a save out of Hiroki Aratani in only the second minute. Daigo Kobayashi nevertheless then fed Morita three minutes later for a scoring opportunity at the other end, but the pizza-faced striker was unable to get his shot on target, as the game developed into a well-balanced encounter despite the poor weather conditions.
Hiroki Aratani dives into action
Kisho Yano came closest to breaking the deadlock as in 28th minute he momentarily escaped the clutches of Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya, but Aratani was alert to the danger and overall Omiya's defence was tight and well-focused. Closer to half-time, though, Albirex had the better possession and pressure - Hashimoto's off-target 32nd-minute free-kick notwithstanding - and although the first period ended goalless it was the hosts who were very much on top.
Tatsunori Hisanaga made way for Chikara Fujimoto at the break, as Toshiya Miura attempted to introduce a more positive aspect to Ardija's tactical approach. And just two minutes after the re-start, the change paid dividends in the most dramatic style as Fujimoto converted a loose ball in the Niigata area following a Daigo free-kick to give Omiya the lead.
Chikara goes into celebration mode
In addition to the goal, Fujimoto's impact upon the overall play was deeply significant, as the Squirrels' midfield came more into the match and began to create more in the way of goalscoring opportunities. On 57 minutes, Daigo and Morita combined for Chikara once again to get in an attempt on goal with a neat shot, although keeper Takashi Kitano on this occasion made the save.
Just five minutes later, however, and the Squirrels' superiority was translated into a goals when Yoshiyuki Kobayashi supplied his namesake Daigo down the right and, with a terrific piece of individual skill, he beat Kitano from the tightest of angles. With Omiya now in control of the match, the normally passionate Niigata support were further quietened when in 73rd minute Edmilson beat Toninho in the challenge, only for the alert Aratani to snuff out the chance.
Hiroshi Morita actually gets in a header. On the opposition goal
The only disappointment came when Fabinho's injury time consolation goal meant that Toninho was unable to bring down the curtain on his Squirrels career with a shutout, but in the end Omiya were well worth the win on the basis of an impressive second half display. 2006 therefore came to an end with three straight victories for Toshiya Miura: some satisfaction, following a frustrating campaign.
But the next few weeks will be vital ones indeed for Ardija, as the search for Miura's replacement gathers pace - and players fight for a position in the 2007 squad, via the showcase that is the Emperor's Cup. And with Toninho now off the scene for good, how about a starting place for Terukazu Tanaka against Jubilo Iwata?
Fiiiiiiiiinally. Finally, at last, after all that, in the end. Miracle of miracles, Toshiya Miura delivered an Omiya Ardija home win, as the men in orange overcame Cerezo Osaka with a superb brace from Hayato Hashimoto, the young midfielder who has worked his way onto the edges of the starting eleven to provide some of the team's brighter moments in recent weeks.
Facing a Cerezo side who went on to display a lack of motivation remarkable in a group of players still able to avoid automatic relegation, Miura's selection introduced Hashimoto for Chikara Fujimoto on the left of midfield and, to the delight of supporters everywhere, Hiroshi Morita up front for the inconsistent Alison. And it was Hashimoto who made his mark early on in the game, floating in a free-kick that provided a chance for Toninho as early as the fifth minute and then having a decent shot of his own after a good moving involving Yasuhiro Hato,Daigo Kobayashi and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi.
Defending a Cerezo set play
Despite an at times electric display from Hashimoto and the visitors' lack of ambition, the first half finished at 0-0 as Ardija seemed to lose focus in the latter stages. But after the re-start, Omiya took the game by the scruff of the neck. In 48th minute, Daigo fed Tatsunori Hisanaga down the right and his cross was met by a smart Hashimoto header for the opening goal.
Subsequently, Cerezo stepped up a gear and put together some more positive moves, only to find Yukio Tsuchiya, Toninho and Yosuke Kataoka in solid form at the back. Then on 65 minutes, the referee awarded the Squirrels a free-kick just outside the penalty area. Man of the moment Hashimoto took responsibility, despite the presence on the pitch of his close friend Daigo Kobayashi, and doubled the lead with a superb set piece.
The man of the moment makes it 2-0
Coach Miura was clearly more than happy to protect a 2-0 scoreline, withdrawing Morita in favour of the additional security of Masato Saito in midfield. Even so, the best chance in the remainder of the game fell to Omiya in the shape of a typically dangerous shot from Kataoka six minutes from time. But two further positives were to emerge from the match as Chikara Fujimoto came on as late substitute following his injury at Oita - and the defence kept a clean sheet for the first time since mid-August, ironically in the 1-0 defeat of Cerezo.
Yosuke Kataoka in action
Time will tell if this comfortable victory was Toshiya Miura signing off with a win in his last home league match as Omiya coach. Whoever is in charge in 2007, however, will in all probability have a J1 squad that includes Hayato Hashimoto as an emerging new star.
And so all of a sudden Omiya Ardija find themselves eleven points clear of Cerezo Osaka and the relegation zone - and just four off a respectable mid-table finish in this year's J1 table. As has been remarked before here on GGOA a number of times throughout the season, the feeling is that there are a large number of teams of a similar quality in the division.
In one sense, this makes the Squirrels' current position of fifteenth all the more frustrating: if the side's lack of goalscoring prowess can be identified as the main drawback to performances this year, then surely just a few more goals would have made a big difference as regards their league standing. The flipside of this view, however, has to be that a finishing position of, say, tenth - mathematically possible, of course, although in practice very unlikely - would to an extent have masked the problems surrounding Toshiya Miura's team that have manifested themselves throughout the year.
For the target of any of the clubs ranked between Ardija and Thursday's opponents Oita Trinita ought to be not a seventh-place finish, but to bridge the gap between the ranks of the run-of-the-mill, much-of-muchness outfits and the top six - which means, painfully for Squirrels supporters, Kashima Antlers. Taking this as a yardstick, and in the light of the match between the two teams just a few days ago, it suddenly becomes clear how much Omiya have to progress in order to become a genuinely competitive J1 club.
But this is reflection best left until the whole season is done and dusted, or for when setting aims for 2007. On Thursday, however, the under fire Miura and his players travelled all the way down to Kyushu to take on Oita Trinita for a tricky-looking fixture on the back of Saturday's defeat by Kashima. An unchanged side started out the game, with Oita having the better of the earlier exchanges. Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya in the middle of the Ardija defence neverthless gradually imposed themselves on the dangerous duo of Shota Matsuhashi and Daiki Takamatsu, with Yosuke Kataoka and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi also making valuable contributions as Omiya worked hard to put into practice the principle of beginning games more effectively.
A good counter attack involving Chikara Fujimoto and Tatsunori Hisanaga on 18 minutes came to nothing, but the signs were looking promising for a decent enough Squirrels performance. But then, disaster struck eight minutes later when a high Trinita free kick into the box was deflected past Hiroki Aratani by the luckless Daigo Kobayashi.
With the scoreline unchanged at the interval, Miura replaced the somewhat ineffective Alison with Masato Saito, strengthening the midfield and playing Daigo on his own up front. This seemed to have a positive effect on the team's ability to develop attacking moves, but misfortune struck again just eleven minutes after the re-start when Chikara Fujimoto picked up an injury and was replaced, even more appallingly, by Hiroshi Morita.
The alteration forced another tactical switch, as Morita adopted the lone striker role and Daigo moved back into midfield. With 64 minutes on the clock, though, the pendulum at last swung in Omiya's direction, when Yoshiyuki Kobayashi advanced into the Oita box and fired past Seigo Shimokawa for a cracking equaliser.
At this point in the game, Ardija moved into the driving seat as their strength in numbers in midfield started to take effect. Saito controlled possession, leaving Hisanaga and the two Kobayashis to concentrate on their attacking moves. And in the 77th minute, a cross-field move started by Daigo unlocked the home defence was finished in unlikely fashion by Morita converting a loose ball to make it 2-1.
2006 has been a baffling, frustrating year for orange fans, but recent weeks have added a further twist to the nature of their angst. The hope is that the team will be able to rectify this in the final home game of the season against Cerezo Osaka - by putting on the sort of display in Saitama that they have only been able to put on whilst on their travels.
29th July is a date that currently looms large in the diaries of Omiya Ardija supporters. For in a season of disappointment, it marks the date upon which Toshiya Miura's underperforming team last won a home J1 match - a scrappy 1-0 against Kyoto Purple Sanga. But after Saturday's feeble display that saw Kashima Antlers take the lead within the opening seconds, there remains only one more opportunity to obtain a victory in front of the orange fans, when relegation-threatened Cerezo Osaka visit Saitama Stadium on Sunday.
It is not as if the line-up is lacking in stability, in that all areas of the team are more or less settled for the first time in a turbulent year: Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya form a reasonably tough partnership in the middle of the back four, the Yosuke Kataoka / Yoshiyuki Kobayashi / Tatsunori Hisanaga / Chikara Fujimoto quartet in midfield are established enough and Alison / Daigo Kobayashi have enjoyed enough playing time together to become familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses.
But as in the last home fixture against FC Tokyo at the end of October, this fragile Ardija team conceded early and never looked likely to be able to fight their way back into contention. Chikashi Masuda played a looping ball into the area and young Antlers striker Yuzo Tashiro arced a header over Hiroki Aratani into the net. Two minutes later and Kashima almost doubled their lead from a Takuya Nozawa free-kick, but Aratani was this time alert to the danger and rescued a very shaky-looking defence.
There were barely any opportunities for a woefully uninventive home side to put together any attacking moves in the opening stages of the match as Paulo Autori's men dominated possession, while Omiya's midfield was notable mainly by its absence. Yosuke Kataoka and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi seemed to find themselves over-run and outclassed, leaving Alison in particular an isolated figure up front.
The first half-chance for Ardija occurred as late as the 29th minute, when Tsuchiya battled to get onto the end of a Daigo free-kick - but even then, the Kashima defence held sway and Hitoshi Sogahata's goal remained resolutely unthreatened. Two minutes later, Tsuchiya headed a Daigo corner over the bar but apart from a late Fujimoto shot that went just wide, the first 45 minutes saw very poor fare indeed from Omiya.
Toshiya Miura made one change at the break in an attempt to pull things round, bringing off full-back Daisuke Tomita as Manabu Wakabayashi came on to form a partnership with Alison. As Fujimoto and Daigo concentrated on providing service from the flanks for the tall figure of Wakabayashi, the Squirrels started the second period a little more brightly. But the game was as good as over on 54 minutes, when Masashi Motoyama fed Fabio Santos down the Antlers right and Tashiro dived to head in the resulting cross at the far post.
It was not until the 70th minute that Miura responded by throwing on Hayato Hashimoto for Hisanaga as an overlapping full-back, but even then the Kashima back line were able to hold the Ardija attack at arm's length without feeling the need to break into a sweat. Six minutes from time, the impressive Motoyama concluded the scoring with a rasping shot from just outside the penalty area.
And so the optimism from the recent away matches at JEF United and Shimizu S-Pulse has well and truly dissipated after such a weak showing from Miura's team, who seem to be limping over the line as they do the absolute minimum in order to stay in J1. The extent to which the players themselves can shoulder the blame is questionable - but what is without doubt is that the club this year have headed in the wrong direction and instead of consolidating further as a top level side have slipped back, perilously close to the relegation zone and homeless into the bargain. A change of coach is surely now what is required to help Omiya to compete effectively with outfits of a similar stature, wiping the slate clean for 2007.
A much-improved performance from Omiya Ardija saw the Squirrels disappointed to come away with only a draw against high-flying Shimizu S-Pulse in their J-League clash at Nihondaira on Saturday. Coach Toshiya Miura elected to revert to his slightly more cautious formation by dropping Hayato Hashimoto in favour of the more defensive-minded Tatsunori Hisanaga, but that aside it was the by-now-familiar Ardija line-up that took to the field - including the Alison / Daigo Kobayashi partnership up front against an S-Pulse defence that had conceded four against JFL side Tochigi SC just a week ago.
Cutting off most of S-Pulse's attempts to provide their own strikers Marquinhos and Cho Jae Jin with service, it was a determined opening from the away side as Alison in particular looked alert and mobile. The Brazilian proved a thorn in the side of the Shimizu defence all the time he was on the field and was a willing target for the promptings of Chikara Fujimoto and Daigo. At the other end, Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya continued to be successful in their efforts to protect Hiroki Aratani, most notably from the threat of the overlapping runs of Daisuke Ichikawa.
The Orange Derby at Nihondaira
Ardija looked the likelier to score right up until the moment when they conceded the opening goal mid-way through the first half. Experienced midfielder Teruyoshi Ito broke free on the right and put in a pin-point cross which the dangerous Marquinhos despatched past Aratani with a fine header. In spite of this potential blow to their confidence, the Squirrels kept trying to move forward and create chances, Daisuke Tomita going close with a header of his own and Daigo just off-target with a shot. Another dangerous run from Alison ended when he was brought down by Ichikawa, and the resulting Daigo free-kick led to a corner as Omiya peppered the S-Pulse goal in search of an equaliser that their play undoubtedly deserved.
But the teams changed ends with the score still at 1-0 and the play dominated by Ardija, Alison and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi both going close to an equaliser in the early stages of the second period. It seemed increasingly difficult to believe that the Squirrels were still losing the game when Toshiya Miura threw on the scorer of last week's winner Manabu Wakabayashi in favour of Tomita on 56 minutes - and the tall striker made an immediate impact, as just two minutes later he was brought down inside the box for a penalty kick. Daigo converted to make it 1-1 and matters improved still further for Omiya seconds later when Marquinhos was sent off for a second bookable offence as the referee adjudged him to have dived in the area.
Manabu Wakabayashi goes for a cross
Using their numerical advantage, the speed of Alison and the height of Wakabayashi, the Squirrels upped the pressure yet further on S-Pulse keeper Yohei Nishibe and his defence. In the 65th minute, Nishibe did well to keep out a Wakabayashi diving header and Yosuke Kataoka also went close with one of his long-range specials shortly afterwards. Further substitutions inevitably followed - Hayato Hashimoto appearing for Fujimoto and, bewilderingly, the ever-ineffective Hiroshi Morita for Alison - and even though Aratani ended the game much less busy than his opposite number, a second Omiya goal never came.
Squirrels top scorer King Daigo
And so a 1-1 draw sees Omiya slip to fifteenth in the table, but a ten-point advantage over Avispa Fukuoka and Cerezo Osaka means that J1 football is almost guaranteed with only four matches remaining. In seeking to finish the season strongly, however, the trick will be to see if the boys in orange can transfer another impressive away performance into a good display and points-on-the-board at home next week against an unpredictable Kashima Antlers side, who on Saturday recovered from conceding an early Magno Alves goal to beat Gamba Osaka.
Amid rumours that Omiya will seek to bring former loan striker Leandro back to the club after his startlingly successful season in J2 at cash-strapped Montedio Yamagata, it is tremendous news for Squirrels fans that Alison too seems to be finishing 2006 by staking a claim for a long-term place in the side.
Omiya Ardija had the unlikeliest heroes to thank as they scraped through to the Fifth Round of the 2006 Emperor's Cup competition and a meeting with Jubilo Iwata. A crowd of just over 2000 were in Akita to see the Squirrels take on JFLers YKK AP, and those few fans dressed in orange had hoped that coach Toshiya Miura would cut just that little bit loose with his team selection for the cup match. Despite pre-match rumours circulating that Terukazu Tanaka might finally get a game, the only real variation from the norm was Hayato Hashimoto coming in for Tatsunori Hisanaga, with Chikara Fujimoto on the opposite flank in a formation of characteristically modest attacking ambition.
Nevertheless, it was Hashimoto who started particularly brightly on the left-hand side, evidently keen to make the most of his opportunity and impress, although it ought to be acknowledged that the underdogs gave Ardija an almighty scare just two minutes in, when a header from star striker Mitsuru Hasegawa came dangerously close to giving YKK a shock lead. Alison too nearly broke the deadlock at the other end, but failed to make good contact with the ball after good work down the right from Takuro Nishimura. But Hashimoto was the dominant attacking player, involved in almost all of Omiya's positive movements, whether they be from open play or from a set piece, such as when Yoshiyuki Kobayashi headed a 17th-minute free kick onto the crossbar.
A minute later, Hashimoto had a shot of his own that was just too high and despite all the possession that the Squirrels were enjoying, the first score was taking its time in coming. Just when it appeared that YKK were going to survive with their goal intact until the interval, Alison was wrestled to the ground some 25 metres from goal after being fed by Fujimoto - and from the free kick it was that man Hashimoto who stepped up to whip the ball past keeper Yuji Nakagawa for a tremendous opener.
With no substitutions being made by either side at the break, ominously it was the Toyama side who started the second period looking threatening, as Ardija conceded possession and territory too easily in the face of a determined opposition. On 53 minutes, another Hasegawa header had the alarm bells ringing in the sluggish-looking Omiya defence and as such it was barely a surprise when Hasegawa's partner, former Vissel Kobe man Hiroki Kishida, pulled the non-league side level from a set piece of their own just after the hour mark.
Things were looking bleak indeed for the Squirrels, a pair of positive substitutions shortly after the re-start seeming to have worked wonders for their well-organised opponents. But it was Daigo Kobayashi whose influence turned the tide in favour of Omiya, exchanging passes with Fujimoto to send in a shot that brought a fine save out of Nakagawa. Shortly afterwards, Fujimoto made way for ex-JFL striker Manabu Wakabayashi in a change of approach from Miura that saw Daigo Kobayashi move over to the right of midfield, intent on providing the substitute with service to take advantage of his height. Nine minutes from time, this modification paid off with a somewhat lucky goal, a right-hand cross from Alison being nodded in by Wakabayashi via post and keeper.
And so Ardija squeezed past an impressive YKK side, offering to supporters the bare minimum in terms of accpetability of performance and, the hunger and focus of Hashimoto aside, no real sense that the team has turned the corner or will be able to return to league action with any conviction. S-Pulse on Saturday will doubtless display little of the caution that the semi-professionals of necessity adopted. The pressure is still on.