What a twelve months it has been for the Yokohama FC. Sensationally promoted from J2 on the back of a rock solid defence and a midfield orchestrated by former international legend Motohiro Yamaguchi, the Sky Blues began 2007 with a narrow defeat at Urawa Reds which featured a stunning goal from incoming striker Tatsuhiko Kubo and followed that up with the moment that fans had dreamed of, ever since predecessor club Yokohama Flugels were swallowed up by rivals Yokohama Marinos in a messy corporate takeover at the end of the last century.
For it was as early in the campaign as the second fixture of the season that Fulie hosted the despised Marinos, in what their older fans could scarcely be blamed for calling a revenge match. And in only the seventh minute, defender Tomonobu Hayakawa got on the end of a looping ball in the Sailors' box and scooped it over keeper Tetsuya Enomoto for an inelegant, but deeply significant, goal. However much Marinos may have dominated much of the rest of the match, Yokohama FC hung on for a remarkable win that seemed to suggest not only that the nightmares of the past had been laid to rest, but also that the squad may just have enough quality and determination to make a fist of life in the top division.
Now, of course, we know different. Takuya Takagi's squad hit the bottom of the standings in mid-April and apart from a couple of tiny blips have remained there ever since. In the return derby game in August, Marinos gained a revenge of their own, with an 8-1 hammering that came in the middle of a run that has seen Fulie pick up just a solitary point from sixteen fixtures. Takagi's replacement, Julio Real, has now overseen eight consecutive defeats - including Saturday's capitulation at Kobe, which merely provided final confirmation that the team with the worst attack and the worst defence in the league will indeed by relegated back to J2 for 2008.
Omiya Ardija's contribution to the Sky Blues' demise has been modest enough, a header from defender Daisuke Tomita notching up what was in mid-May only the Squirrels' second win of the season. But while the outcome of the season is now clear for Yokohama, Omiya's J1 survival rests on a knife-edge and, as such, Saturday's encounter at Mitsuzawa could scarcely be more vital. After a deserved victory last weekend over a Sanfrecce Hiroshima side in decline, Ardija's tails are up amidst signs that playmaker Daigo Kobayashi is finally hitting some kind of consistent form.
Coach Satoru Sakuma has more or less a full-strength squad to choose from, as defender Takuro Nishimura is available once again after missing the Hiroshima match through suspension - although deputy Yusuke Murayama did well on his full debut. It is even possible that long-term absentee Hiroki Aratani will return between the posts, as the Squirrels' first-choice keeper finally picked up some playing time for the reserves at the weekend after four months out with a broken arm.
But issues of team selection aside, what Sakuma needs now above all from his players is the ability to take the positives from one match and to continue to deliver in the next. This is something that they have failed to do all year, a characteristic that has seen good results and excellent performances followed rapidly by disastrous defeats in which nothing appeared to go right. Against Sanfrecce, Omiya defended comfortably and restricted a potentially very dangerous opponent to a handful of attempts on goal, whilst creating a good number of chances at the other end. Whether it be Denis Marques,Kota Yoshihara,Hiroshi Morita or Manabu Wakabayashi, the next step of Ardija's survival strategy depends on someone putting away those chances on Saturday.