The long and winding 2008 J1 season comes to an end on Saturday, Yasuhiro Higuchi's Mighty Squirrels travelling to Shizuoka for a key encounter with Jubilo Iwata. The Yamaha Stadium will be packed for the relegation clash, given that neither side are yet safe from the drop - Jubilo are out of the play-off position only on goal difference ahead of Tokyo Verdy. But three points up the standings, Ardija can nevertheless still end up in the play-off if they lose, Verdy beat title challengers Kawasaki Frontale and Albirex Niigata also beat ACL winners Gamba Osaka.
Inevitably after such a patchy campaign, rumours have been circulating in the press that ex-Montedio Yamagata boss Higuchi will be on his way out of the Omiya hot seat. The last four games, however, have yielded not only eight crucial points, but the kind of aggressive and attacking performances that Squirrels supporters have long been hoping for: Daigo Kobayashi's volley against JEF United, the brilliant turn and volley by Klemen Lavric that beat Kawasaki and Leandro's towering header at Albirex Niigata are all goals that will live long in the memories of Ardija followers.
In what is potentially his last match in charge, Higuchi will be without Leandro - missing through suspension against Iwata, who will also be without a key defender in veteran former international Takayuki Chano. Yosuke Kataoka looks set to stand in at the heart of Omiya's defence, news that will no doubt put a spring in the step of Jubilo forward Ryoichi Maeda. For Maeda and his team-mates know that their target for the match is simply to win and thereby guarantee their top flight status for 2009.
The Squirrels should be safe - but that hint of uncertainty means that Higuchi still has a significant task in front of him, to fire up Lavric, Tomoya Uchida and Chikara Fujimoto so that they can put Jubilo on the back foot. Omiya have been unable to achieve their target for the year of what would have been a first-ever top ten finish, but the least that they and Higuchi owe the Ardija fans is a safe and secure position in J1.