The long and winding 2008 J1 season comes to an end on Saturday, Yasuhiro Higuchi's Mighty Squirrels travelling to Shizuoka for a key encounter with Jubilo Iwata. The Yamaha Stadium will be packed for the relegation clash, given that neither side are yet safe from the drop - Jubilo are out of the play-off position only on goal difference ahead of Tokyo Verdy. But three points up the standings, Ardija can nevertheless still end up in the play-off if they lose, Verdy beat title challengers Kawasaki Frontale and Albirex Niigata also beat ACL winners Gamba Osaka.
Inevitably after such a patchy campaign, rumours have been circulating in the press that ex-Montedio Yamagata boss Higuchi will be on his way out of the Omiya hot seat. The last four games, however, have yielded not only eight crucial points, but the kind of aggressive and attacking performances that Squirrels supporters have long been hoping for: Daigo Kobayashi's volley against JEF United, the brilliant turn and volley by Klemen Lavric that beat Kawasaki and Leandro's towering header at Albirex Niigata are all goals that will live long in the memories of Ardija followers.
In what is potentially his last match in charge, Higuchi will be without Leandro - missing through suspension against Iwata, who will also be without a key defender in veteran former international Takayuki Chano. Yosuke Kataoka looks set to stand in at the heart of Omiya's defence, news that will no doubt put a spring in the step of Jubilo forward Ryoichi Maeda. For Maeda and his team-mates know that their target for the match is simply to win and thereby guarantee their top flight status for 2009.
The Squirrels should be safe - but that hint of uncertainty means that Higuchi still has a significant task in front of him, to fire up Lavric, Tomoya Uchida and Chikara Fujimoto so that they can put Jubilo on the back foot. Omiya have been unable to achieve their target for the year of what would have been a first-ever top ten finish, but the least that they and Higuchi owe the Ardija fans is a safe and secure position in J1.
Sunday brings Omiya Ardija's final home game of the 2008 season, as Kyoto Sanga make the trip to Saitama to take on a Squirrels side who have been performing with some confidence and resilience - but who potentially go into the match without two key first teamers. Defensive lynchpin Leandro is suspended, after an extraordinary ninety minutes at Niigata in which the big Brazilian was perhaps unlucky to concede a penalty via which Albirex took the lead, got a yellow card in the process and then two minutes from time headed in Yasuhiro Hato's cross for an equaliser.
Given that Chikara Fujimotoalso looks set to miss out after going off injured against the Swans, coach Yasuhiro Higuchi has a critical re-shuffle on his hands. Ardija have found some stability in recent weeks despite the absence of Yoshiyuki Kobayashi and Denis Marques, but Higuchi's squad for the Kyoto game at least is increasingly stretched. Captain Yoshiyuki may return in the centre of midfield, but that makes less likely the appearance of the more creative Daigo Kobayashi at the heart of the Omiya team.
Sanga commenced their first season back in J1 well, including in their good start a 2-1 win over the Squirrels that included a superb clincher by midfielder Daigo Watanabe. But while it appeared as if the purchase of high-profile players such as Atsushi Yanagisawa and Yuto Sato had enabled Kyoto to establish themselves as a top flight side, they travel to Omiya with only one win in eight. And although that victory at Yokohama F Marinos probably means that Sanga are safe from relegation, they are still only three points off the play-off place currently occupied by Verdy.
However Yasuhiro Higuchi chooses to play things with his threadbare group of players, three points against Sanga would constitute a giant step towards confirmed safety. It would also serve to relieve some of the pressure of the final game at fellow relegation strugglers Jubilo Iwata. The closeness of the league standings means that every individual point is valuable in the fight to stay above Albirex, Verdy, JEF United and Jubilo.
Despite last week's defeat to Nagoya Grampus in the Emperor's Cup, Omiya Ardija can approach Sunday's J1 trip to Albirex Niigata with a genuine degree of confidence. The Squirrels' results and performances have in recent weeks been far better than that of Albirex, as Tomoya Uchida, Chikara Fujimoto and Taishi Tsukamoto have brought to the team a much greater attacking threat than was the case earlier in the season. Uchida against Grampus contributed a superb long-range goal to add to his recent displays and the diminutive former Yokohama FC player has shone on the left of midfield.
Daigo Kobayashi looks set to return to the heart of the Ardija side after suspension and as such, the likely line-up against Niigata is now resembling arguably the best available to coach Yasuhiro Higuchi. With the team's recent result being as good as they have been, there must be a question mark over the places in the starting eleven of long-term injury victims Yoshiyuki Kobayashi and Denis Marques, even when they are both completely fit: certainly, other players have been broadly successful in filling the creative void brought about by Denis' absence.
While Ardija have shown clear signs that they have broken out of the slump that threatened to get the club relegated back to J2, Sunday's opponents have yet to bring about such a change. As such, Albirex appear at this moment to be in more significant danger of the drop than do Omiya, despite the two teams being separated only by goal difference. Jun Suzuki's team have failed to score in their last five league games and although they broke that duck in the Emperor's Cup against FC Tokyo, that Niigata let slip a two-goal lead to go out of the competition 3-2 is the sort of disappointment that can only undermine their fragile confidence.
But as any Omiya follower knows, these goal-less runs have to come to an end sometime and it would be a mistake for the Squirrels to assume that the game is theirs for the taking on Sunday. If either side are able to win, they will in all likelihood almost guarantee J1 football for themselves in 2009. The stakes could hardly be higher.
What a difference three wins makes. Pulsating league triumphs against JEF United and Kawasaki Frontale - together with a low-key Emperor's Cup tie in which they eased past J2 side Cerezo Osaka - have seen the Squirrels resurrect a 2008 season that a matter of weeks ago appeared to be heading for disaster. Ardija somehow found the resilience to fight back from a goal down in a critical match with JEF, Klemen Lavric found acres of space to head in the winner against Cerezo and then lashed in a peach of a goal to claim three points at the expense of title challengers Frontale.
It's somehow hard to imagine that Yasuhiro Higuchi's previously lacklustre side would have been able to find the reserves of self-confidence necessary to overcome such potentially difficult opponents. But the likes of Chikara Fujimoto, Daigo Kobayashi and newcomer Taishi Tsukamoto have injected a much-needed urgency and attacking drive to Omiya's recent displays. Tsukamoto in particular deserves credit for coming into the team and making a huge difference in particular to the attacking threat on the right-hand side.
Having beaten J2-ers Cerezo two weeks ago, the Squirrels take on Nagoya Grampus in Saturday's Emperor's Cup Fifth Round with Ardija's recent form very much the better of the two. Grampus, who have spent most of the season in the top three in J1, squeezed past neighbours FC Gifu in the Fourth Round and in the league are without a win in half a dozen matches - stretching back to the end of September. The goals have dried up for the Red Whales, only midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa having found the net in three games, while key forward Keiji Tamada is away on international duty.
With keeper Seigo Narazaki injured, Omiya have a good opportunity to put one over on a Grampus team that have done the double against them in the league. The Emperor's Cup may not be a priority for Higuchi and his team, but a fourth consecutive victory would surely enable the Squirrels to continue the momentum that has developed since defeating JEF. Then, when it really counts against Albirex Niigata, Ardija can have the confidence they need to succeed in their fight against the drop.
Now on an unbeaten run of fully two matches, Omiya Ardija play their third home game in a row on Saturday when title-chasing Kawasaki Frontale travel to Saitama for an encounter that has implications at both the top and bottom of the J1 table. The 2-1 defeat of JEF United was arguably the performance of 2008 and although the weekend Emperor's Cup win over Cerezo Osaka was a lot more lacklustre, it was encouraging indeed to see wide midfield man Tomoya Uchida chip in with his second assist in two games.
It was Klemen Lavric who headed home a simple enough goal to knock out Cerezo following good work by the teeny tiny former Yokohama FC man. But against JEF, Uchida made a major contribution to perhaps one of the best goals that the Squirrels have scored all year, controlling a stunning cross-field pass by Taishi Tsukamoto before playing the ball in for Daigo Kobayashi to volley it in at the near post.
A peach of a goal and a team effort, unlike the thrilling individual scores by Denis Marques and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi that lit up the away match with Kawasaki back in May. After a disappointing start to 2008 that saw draw one and lose three of their first four games, the Kanagawa Blues have more recently put together the kind of form that pre-season had some commentators predicting that this year would see the club challenge for the championship.
Two defeats in fourteen matches is a run that has seen Frontale climb the standings back into contention - although FC Tokyo and Shimizu S-Pulse have both discovered that if the frontline of Juninho and Chong Tese can be stopped, Kawasaki can be beaten as they do find it tough to keep a clean sheet. The Squirrels will have to get by without the suspended Daigo, but if Uchida can keep up his more positive recent contributions and Lavric and Chikara Fujimoto are on top of their game, Ardija could just nick something and continue the fight against relegation.
After last weekend's nailbiting 2-1 win over JEF United, Omiya Ardija host Cerezo Osaka on Sunday afternoon in the Fourth Round of the Emperor's Cup - in all honesty, and despite the undoubted romance of knock-out football, something of unwanted distraction at this crucial stage in the league calendar. The Squirrels' defeat of relegation rivals Chiba brought to an end a long, dark tunnel of six consecutive losses and increasingly forlorn performances, thanks in the main to a pulsating first half display from Yasuhiro Higuchi's team.
Coach Higuchi had clearly instructed his charges to shoot on sight, anything inside thirty metres or so representing an opportunity to test JEF keeper Masahiro Okamoto. With Daigo Kobayashi dominant in the middle and Tomoya Uchida and newcomer Taishi Tsukamoto always looking to get forward on the flanks, this was a new-look Squirrels full of energy, drive, passion and movement.
Central defender Leandro had passion fit to burst as he berated his team-mates for failing to stop Masaki Fukai from playing a dangerous ball into the Squirrels' box. This was a match that the big Brazilian was without question desperate to win. Goalscoring chances nevertheless did go to waste and after such a long time without scoring the likes of Klemen Lavric and Shin Kanazawa were unsurprisingly rather nervy around Okamoto's six-yard area. Uchida also shot wildly on several occasions after his dribbling skills and quick thinking had got him into good positions.
Both the performance and the three points represent a massive boost to Omiya's hopes of remaining in J1, when over the last few weeks it had appeared that the players were more or less expecting to be relegated. Now, having moved out of the drop zone at JEF's expense, the fate of the Squirrels is in their own hands and with games to come against less-than-stellar opposition like Albirex Niigata, out-of-form Kyoto Sanga and a Jubilo Iwata side in grave danger of joining Consadole Sapporo in J2, their run-in could be very much less kind.
Under similar circumstances last year, then-coach Satoru Sakuma fielded a weakened team for the Emperor's Cup game against Yokohama FC and lost 2-0 - but ultimately, of course, Sakuma won the far bigger prize and kept Ardija in the top division. Defender Yasuhiro Hato will be missing against Cerezo following his red card late on in the match with JEF and it could be that fringe players like Masahiko Ichikawa will gain some more first team experience. A win over the J2 side on Sunday might be nice, but the real action returns next weekend when Kawasaki Frontale visit Omiya Park and the fight to stay in J1 commences once more.
An improved performance reaped little reward for Omiya Ardija last weekend, as a nervous side conceded eight minutes from time at Ajinomoto to lose against fellow relegation strugglers Tokyo Verdy. Yasuhiro Higuchi has now led his team to six consecutive defeats and into the jaws of the relegation zone. The Squirrels have stuttered before, of course - indeed some would say they have done little else since reaching J1 -but this time the loss of all-round confidence looks as if it may prove fatal.
In contrast, for Sunday's opponents JEF United, the improvement since the arrival from Liverpool of Scottish coach Alex Miller has been little short of miraculous. The Chiba Dogs come into Sunday's match on the back of five wins and two draws in their last seven games, a run that has taken them out of the relegation zone for the first time all year. Particularly impressive have been victories over championship challengers Urawa Reds and Nagoya Grampus, results of which Higuchi and his players can only dream at the moment.
But despite the recent form of the two teams, there does exist a feeling that all points have been leading towards Sunday's encounter as a crunch match. Back in April, Ardija scored an extraordinary 4-2 win in Chiba, Denis Marques and Pedro Junior scoring three terrific individual goals between them, while Yosuke Kataoka lashed in a stunning half-volley to steer the match back in the Squirrels' favour after it had seemed to be slipping away from them.
With Denis injured and Pedro having left the club, Higuchi above all needs a dominant performance from forward Klemen Lavric and above all for the giant Slovenian to click with Chikara Fujimoto in a manner that has not occurred since the 1-0 defeat of Yokohama F Marinos at the end of August. That relationship and the tiny glimmers of encouragement from the Verdy game need to bear fruit against JEF - otherwise the stutter will become a stumble and a fall from which it will truly be difficult to recover.