Shimizu S-Pulse visit Omiya Park on Sunday evening for the last in a series of six J1 matches that have been little short of disastrous for Omiya Ardija. Coming out of the long break at the end of June, Yasuhiro Higuchi's men were riding high in seventh place in the standings, just a handful of points off the top spot and having picked up a number of surprising - if occasionally somewhat undeserved - wins along the way.
But now, such is the close nature of the J-League's top division that four consecutive defeats have left the Squirrels in a far more familiar position: on the edge of the relegation zone and glancing nervously over their shoulders. If Ardija fans had a dream that, following the arrival from Yamagata of Higuchi, their team had suddenly been transformed into a truly competitive J1 outfit, that dream must surely by now have been shattered.
The reality is that Omiya struggled desperately throughout 2007 and with an almost identical team this year look set to be involved once more in a fight to avoid the drop. As has been documented on this site over recent weeks, there are simply too many under-performers in the side for this not to be the case. And to add to the concerns of an already nervy Squirrel Nation, midfielder Chikara Fujimoto confessed in midweek that team spirit had taken a major blow in the crushing 4-0 loss to Nagoya Grampus, with players arguing amongst themselves and blaming each other for mistakes instead of adopting a supportive approach to a difficult situation.
So with this less-than-encouraging backdrop to arguably the most important fixture of the season against an S-Pulse side immediately below Ardija in the table, the suggestion in the footballing press is that Higuchi would appear to have reverted to bringing toothless forward Kota Yoshihara back into the starting line-up alongside the Squirrels' key performer Denis Marques. Defender Daisuke Tomita is unavailable through suspension - remarkably, Omiya's first of the year - with Yosuke Kataoka likely to step in and partner Leandro in the middle of the back four.
Neither of these are a pieces of news that will put a spring in the step of Omiya supporters in the countdown to kick-off. But right now, praying for an S-Pulse off-day and for a piece of Denis Marques magic looks to be about the Squirrels' most realistic chance of success.