Yasuhiro Higuchi's Omiya Ardija return to league action on Sunday with their first trip of 2008 to Shizuoka and a Shimizu S-Pulse side that currently sit one place below the Squirrels in the fledgling J1 table. Since the disappointing 2-1 loss at Kyoto Sanga, Higuchi has taken the opportunity to field a more experimental line-up in the two Nabisco Cup fixtures against Albirex Niigata and Yokohama F Marinos, right back Yusuke Murayama and rookie forward Kohei Tokita getting a place in the starting eleven for the first time this year.
And while there was clear frustration that two avoidable goals were conceded in a sloppy defensive display at Niigata - during which Ardija were twice pegged back after having gone into the lead - the Squirrels on balance did well to follow that up by battling to a goalless draw with the Marinos. If Kota Yoshihara had done better than to hit the woodwork in the closing stages, the men in orange could even have taken four points from the pair of Cup games.
But keeper Koji Ezumi in particular stood out against the Sailors and a clean sheet in that game is a reassuring sign that the strength of the 2007 side - an at times almost impenetrable back four - may be returning.. Indications from the El Golazo football paper would suggest that Murayama may be in line to keep his place, coming in for Terukazu Tanaka who has yet to convince and who was to a great extent responsible for the yawning gap in the Ardija defence that led to Kyoto's equalising goal. Youngster Tokita sadly seemed to struggle in the Marinos game and Tomoya Uchida may come in for his first league start.
S-Pulse's Akinori Nishizawa takes on baldy ex-Squirrel Yukio Tsuchiya
However Higuchi shuffles his pack, there can be little doubt that Sunday's clash constitutes one of the most difficult fixtures of the year for the new Omiya coach and his players. On the opening day, S-Pulse found themselves victims of Oita Trinita's surprisingly positive start to the campaign, falling behind to a Ueslei goal in only the seventh minute and eventually going down 2-1.
This was a shock that Shimizu countered two weeks ago with a win by the same scoreline at JEF United that came thanks to a spectacular goal late in the game from young forward Shinji Okazaki. During the Nabisco Cup break, FC Tokyo were dispatched 3-1 before a goalless draw last Sunday at Tokyo Verdy - all of which would indicate that Kenta Hasegawa's side may have put behind them the glitch of their defeat by Trinita and are starting to find some consistency. Squirrels beware.