It's been a close season of quiet drama for Omiya Ardija and their supporters. After the almost unbearable tension of the closing stages of the 2007 campaign, in which the Mighty Squirrels somehow managed to pull themselves out of the relegation zone after months of struggle, many fans were expecting - and indeed hoping for - wholesale changes to a squad that underperformed for so much of the year.
But as it turned out, only a handful of older fringe players were released after the final match, all defenders - and incredibly, the strikers who had so clearly failed in their goalscoring duties were all retained, although the largely blameless Manabu Wakabayashi later departed to spend 2008 in J2 with Ehime FC.
And with new coach Yasuhiro Higuchi quickly appointed in place of Satoru Sakuma - now Technical Director - Omiya's transfer activity over the winter has been very different from that of previous years. In a clear change of policy, the club moved to bring in a raft of signings out of university and even, in the case of midfield starlet Takuya Aoki, from high school in Gunma prefecture.
Thus the overall balance of the squad has changed considerably when compared with last season, Ardija opting to replace players coming to the end of their careers like Yasunari Hiraoka and former skipper Seiichiro Okuno with raw potential, in the shape of youngsters such as Taishi Tsukamoto and Tatsuya Kawahara.
Central midfielder Shin Kanazawa returns to the club after two years on loan to Tokyo Verdy and utility defender Yusuke Murayama makes permanent his loan move from Shonan Bellmare. But the Squirrels' only genuine new signing with J-League experience is Tomoya Uchida, a midfield player who looks set to spend most of his time laying second string to star man Daigo Kobayashi.
How the 2008 Omiya squad compares with that of twelve months ago is therefore very difficult to predict, in that there are so many newcomers that are completely untried at J1 level. More positively, there is little doubt that the trio of foreign players currently on the club's books - star central defender Leandro, forward Denis Marques and young striker Pedro Junior - are better positioned to make a contribution from the off than was the case at the beginning of 2007.
Former Montedio Yamagata boss Higuchi needs the rookie members of the squad to make an impact on the first team during the course of the year, although indications are that he is likely to opt for a more experienced line-up in Sunday's J1 opener against Albirex Niigata. The Swans have proved something of a bogey side for Ardija in recent years, but a sold-out Omiya Koen will be hoping that the promising form shown by the Squirrels in pre-season can be carried over into proper league action. Let's Go Omiya Let's Go!