The Squirrels are in Nabisco Cup action again on Sunday, as high-flying Yokohama F Marinos visit Omiya Park for a tough-looking tie following on from holiday Thursday's draw at Albirex Niigata. It sometimes feels as if Ardija are destined to be drawn against the Sailors but oddly it's Omiya who have tended to have the upper hand in these games, turning themselves into the Marinos' bogey side in the process.
But Sunday's encounter looks as if it could be a particularly tricky one for new coach Yasuhiro Higuchi and his team. When compared with 2007, the men in orange may be a different kettle of fish going forward, as Pedro Junior and Daigo Kobayashi in particular are providing the sharpness in front of goal that was so disastrously lacking last year. At the back, however, sloppy and error-strewn play has led directly to Omiya conceding three of the four goals that have hit the back of Koji Ezumi's net so far in 2008.
Atsushi Yanagisawa's scrambled equaliser for Kyoto Sanga in the league and Alessandro's free kick and penalty for Albirex at the Big Swan on Thursday are acknowledged by the team as having been avoidable. And so Higuchi's side have in both the last two games found themselves unable to hold on to an early lead. Truly it seems a difficult task to find the right balance in this Ardija line-up - something that was unaffected by the change in personnel for the Cup game in Niigata, when Yusuke Murayama, Masato Saito, Tomoya Uchida and rookie Kohei Tokita all came in for their first starts of the season.
Well whoopey-doo, Marinos celebrate their winner against Oita
Marinos, on the other hand, have enjoyed a consistent start to 2008 and sit joint top of the J1 standings and clear ahead in the Nabisco Cup group as a consequence. The opening day of the season saw Urawa Reds defeated in front of more than 60,000 fans at the Nissan Stadium, a result that was followed by a 2-1 win in the Sapporo Dome in which Hideo Oshima contributed two late goals, just as it looked as if Consadole were going to pull off a shock.
Defender Hayuma Tanaka chipped in with the only goal of the Nabisco Cup game to beat a gritty and resilent Oita Trinita, although the Marinos's cause was helped by the dismissal of Trinita danger man Ueslei in the second half. All of which means that incoming coach Takashi Kuwahara is protecting a 100% record coming into Sunday's game. From a Squirrels perspective, the pressure is on key central defender Leandro in particular to start to put in the type of authoritative and commanding performance that marked him out as Ardija's star player last season, thereby eliminating the mistakes which have cost Omiya dear at Kyoto and at Niigata.
Tomoya Uchida also needs to convince as a longer term stand-in for the injured Chikara Fujimoto on the left-hand side of midfield, while assuming that Higuchi opts to field the same side that started against Albirex on Thursday, young forward Kohei Tokita will be in for the game of his life up against Marinos' international defender Yuji Nakazawa. But a win is what this Omiya team must aim to pull off, to put themselves in contention in what looks to be a tight group - while also seeking to turn Omiya Park into the kind of venue that opponents fear.