After a break for the national team's World Cup qualifier against Bahrain, Japan's top-flight footballers return to league action on Saturday as the J1 season moves into the closing straight. Omiya Ardija take the short trip to Ajinomoto to take on FC Tokyo, Yasuhiro Higuchi's players having every reason to approach the fixture with every confidence following three wins in their last four outings.
The two teams last met at the beginning of May, the Squirrels putting in a sloppy performance at Omiya Park against a side who at that time had every reason to believe that they were going to be able to challenge for the J1 title. A 3-0 Tokyo triumph only added to that feeling, but since then the team have fallen into a slump. Recent narrow wins over Nagoya Grampus and Kashiwa Reysol have brought to an end a particularly fallow period - but the days when the Gasheads could be thought of as 2008 championship contenders are over.
Higuchi will presumably still be missing injured skipper Yoshiyuki Kobayashi - but the influence of the former Tokyo Verdy man was missed less than had been anticipated in the 1-0 defeat of Yokohama F Marinos, in which Yosuke Kataoka put in a season's best performance in the central midfield role. Chikara Fujimoto will definitely be missing on the left-hand side after he picked up a fourth yellow card of the year against Marinos.
But top scorer Denis Marques returns to continue the development of his promising-looking partnership with Klemen Lavric, against a Tokyo defence that will be missing stalwart Hideki Sahara. If Lavric brings a consistent aerial threat that the Squirrels have rarely offered in recent seasons, Denis is without doubt Omiya's creative hub and the team floundered in his absence against high-flying Oita Trinita. Three wins is all it will realistically take to ensure another year of J1 football for Ardija - but a strong front line such as that which Higuchi can now call upon surely has the ability to fire the Squirrels yet higher up the standings.