New Omiya Ardija coach Yasuhiro Higuchi made a tremendous start to life in charge of a top flight team, as the Squirrels recorded a 2-0 win over bogey side Albirex Niigata at a packed Omiya Koen on Sunday afternoon. Afterwards the players paid tribute to Higuchi for a smooth pre-season and the development of environment in which each member of the team knows exactly what is expected of him - a situation that could scarcely be more different than when Dutchman Robert Verbeek took over a year ago.
For Ardija notched up a deserved victory against an Albirex side who were coming off the back of their highest-ever J-League finish in 2007. And although the Omiya line-up contained virtually the same players as last season, the main difference on today's evidence was that the Squirrels of 2008 are a more direct and attacking side than was ever the case under Verbeek, Satoru Sakuma or Toshiya Miura.
Almost as pleasing as the result was the way that star midfield man Daigo Kobayashi stamped his authority on the team and indeed overall the one-time international gave a virtuoso display. It was his quickly taken free kick mid-way through the first half that set up Pedro Junior for the opening goal, the young Brazilian receiving the ball and weaving his way round the Swans' defence before rifling an excellent angled drive into the corner. And just before half time, Pedro returned the favour for Daigo to stretch Omiya's lead, when after another mesmerising run he smashed the ball at keeper Takashi Kitano, who could only parry it for the waiting Kobayashi to prod home the second.
Woohoo! Two goals, three points
In the fifteen minutes after the re-start, Niigata turned up the heat and it took some inspired keeping from Koji Ezumi to keep Ardija's clean sheet. One stop in particular was impressive as Ezumi used his legs to kick away a loose ball with the dangerous Kisho Yano waiting to tap in. Apart from a couple of errors from Yasuhiro Hato in the first half the defence looked strong, with Ezumi being the standout and there were a couple of great long distance shots from Daigo in the first half and Leandro in the second.
All in all, a highly encouraging start for Omiya supporters, who in Pedro Junior would at last appear to have a striker that looks capable of giving them something to get excited about. Credit, too, to the unsung Higuchi, whose tactical changes in bringing on Tomoya Uchida and Kohei Tokita for their debuts steadied the ship when it seemed that Albirex were capable of working their way back into the match. Roll on Kyoto next week.