An improved performance reaped little reward for Omiya Ardija last weekend, as a nervous side conceded eight minutes from time at Ajinomoto to lose against fellow relegation strugglers Tokyo Verdy. Yasuhiro Higuchi has now led his team to six consecutive defeats and into the jaws of the relegation zone. The Squirrels have stuttered before, of course - indeed some would say they have done little else since reaching J1 -but this time the loss of all-round confidence looks as if it may prove fatal.
In contrast, for Sunday's opponents JEF United, the improvement since the arrival from Liverpool of Scottish coach Alex Miller has been little short of miraculous. The Chiba Dogs come into Sunday's match on the back of five wins and two draws in their last seven games, a run that has taken them out of the relegation zone for the first time all year. Particularly impressive have been victories over championship challengers Urawa Reds and Nagoya Grampus, results of which Higuchi and his players can only dream at the moment.
But despite the recent form of the two teams, there does exist a feeling that all points have been leading towards Sunday's encounter as a crunch match. Back in April, Ardija scored an extraordinary 4-2 win in Chiba, Denis Marques and Pedro Junior scoring three terrific individual goals between them, while Yosuke Kataoka lashed in a stunning half-volley to steer the match back in the Squirrels' favour after it had seemed to be slipping away from them.
With Denis injured and Pedro having left the club, Higuchi above all needs a dominant performance from forward Klemen Lavric and above all for the giant Slovenian to click with Chikara Fujimoto in a manner that has not occurred since the 1-0 defeat of Yokohama F Marinos at the end of August. That relationship and the tiny glimmers of encouragement from the Verdy game need to bear fruit against JEF - otherwise the stutter will become a stumble and a fall from which it will truly be difficult to recover.