After last weekend's nailbiting 2-1 win over JEF United, Omiya Ardija host Cerezo Osaka on Sunday afternoon in the Fourth Round of the Emperor's Cup - in all honesty, and despite the undoubted romance of knock-out football, something of unwanted distraction at this crucial stage in the league calendar. The Squirrels' defeat of relegation rivals Chiba brought to an end a long, dark tunnel of six consecutive losses and increasingly forlorn performances, thanks in the main to a pulsating first half display from Yasuhiro Higuchi's team.
Coach Higuchi had clearly instructed his charges to shoot on sight, anything inside thirty metres or so representing an opportunity to test JEF keeper Masahiro Okamoto. With Daigo Kobayashi dominant in the middle and Tomoya Uchida and newcomer Taishi Tsukamoto always looking to get forward on the flanks, this was a new-look Squirrels full of energy, drive, passion and movement.
Central defender Leandro had passion fit to burst as he berated his team-mates for failing to stop Masaki Fukai from playing a dangerous ball into the Squirrels' box. This was a match that the big Brazilian was without question desperate to win. Goalscoring chances nevertheless did go to waste and after such a long time without scoring the likes of Klemen Lavric and Shin Kanazawa were unsurprisingly rather nervy around Okamoto's six-yard area. Uchida also shot wildly on several occasions after his dribbling skills and quick thinking had got him into good positions.
Both the performance and the three points represent a massive boost to Omiya's hopes of remaining in J1, when over the last few weeks it had appeared that the players were more or less expecting to be relegated. Now, having moved out of the drop zone at JEF's expense, the fate of the Squirrels is in their own hands and with games to come against less-than-stellar opposition like Albirex Niigata, out-of-form Kyoto Sanga and a Jubilo Iwata side in grave danger of joining Consadole Sapporo in J2, their run-in could be very much less kind.
Under similar circumstances last year, then-coach Satoru Sakuma fielded a weakened team for the Emperor's Cup game against Yokohama FC and lost 2-0 - but ultimately, of course, Sakuma won the far bigger prize and kept Ardija in the top division. Defender Yasuhiro Hato will be missing against Cerezo following his red card late on in the match with JEF and it could be that fringe players like Masahiko Ichikawa will gain some more first team experience. A win over the J2 side on Sunday might be nice, but the real action returns next weekend when Kawasaki Frontale visit Omiya Park and the fight to stay in J1 commences once more.