A week after Omiya Ardija met with defeat for the first time this season at the hands of Albirex Niigata, coincidentally it was J1's other men in orange Shimizu S-Pulse who visited Komaba on Saturday afternoon - perhaps not, under the circumstances, the opponents that a nervy Ardija team would have wanted, given their own jittery beginning to 2006.
Kenta Hasegawa's S-Pulse team, in contrast, have been among the early league leaders, winning their first three matches without conceding a single goal and only going down to a late Naotake Hanyu effort at JEF United in midweek. With Korean forward Cho Jae-Jin providing plenty of firepower at the other end, there was much to exercise the mind of Squirrels coach Toshiya Miura in advance of kick-off.
The two teams greet the cauldron that is Komaba
And Miura elected to change things round following the loss against Niigata, sensationally dropping his main close season signing, fish-out-of-water striker Saul Martinez, as well as fellow new boy Yoshiyuki Kobayashi - although the Honduran was later described as having picked up a knock to his ankle in Friday's training.
The club's instant star of 2006, Daigo Kobayashi, supported big Manabu Wakabayshi up front, with Chikara Fujimoto coming back on the left following a couple of matches out injured and Yosuke Kataoka making his first start of the year alongside Jun Marques Davidson in the middle of midfield.
A key concern before the match for Omiya fans was that the team get out of the habit of conceding early, with pressure on the front players - in particular Fujimoto - to retain possession for longer periods and thus keep the direction of play away from Hiroki Aratani's goal. Ardija began with some neat passing and simple swift attacking movements, but couldn't get any attempts in on goal and the balance of play slowly shifted to favour the visitors. But Toninho especially was in fine form at the back, snuffing out attacks and frustrating the efforts of Cho Jae-Jin and Jungo Fujimoto. The latter was also denied by Aratani when he struck a fine free kick midway through the opening period and the Squirrels' defensive mindset and organisation effectively shut the game down until the break.
Aratani lies down on the job
A goalless first half is, however, music to the ears of Toshiya Miura and during the interval he drummed into the players his belief that they could take at least one scoring opportunity and go on to win the game. As quickly as five minutes after the re-start, that chance came when Daigo Kobayashi sent a re-taken free-kick from just outside the S-Pulse area kick past the defensive wall, utterly wrong-footing keeper Yohei Nishibe and into the net: Omiya were in front.
Although the goal seemed to inspire Miura's team, again the initiative soon swang back to the opposition as coach Hasegawa made three substitutions and switched to a more attacking formation. Nevertheless, the Squirrels defence held firm, maintaining their concentration and demonstrating a willingness to throw bodies in front of the ball if necessary. In the end, perhaps, Omiya were just that little bit more determined and, despite Shimizu's dominance in the latter stages, Kobayashi's second goal of the season proved enough to win the game.
Kobayashi celebration. Wait, that's Kobayashi Large
Toshiya Miura was gleeful afterwards, seeing the result as a vindication of his tactical approach and delighted with his players at how well the plan had been executed. "S-Pulse lost their 100% record in the last match, but they're a strong side - the defence is good and they have two powerful forwards, so we were expecting a tough game," he said later.
"We knew in particular that things would be tight in the first half and that after half-time would be the key part of the match. Basically, if we could get to the break at 0-0, we'd felt we'd be holding most of the cards. It was my feeling that if we scored once we could probably go on and get another, but in the end it was more important not to take any risks and to hold on to our advantage."
Toninho does battle with Cho
His opposite number Kenta Hasegawa reflected on a frustrating afternoon for his team. "I think the game was decided by Omiya's technique - if you look at their team, they've got good defensive players and they work hard to protect their goal. It was difficult for us to pull them out of position and they get a lot of men behind the ball. We were aiming to score from a set play, not concede, so it's disappointing to lose like that."
But Squirrels goal hero Daigo had the last word, saying, "The game developed well for us and we knew we could go on and win when it was 0-0 at half-time. Then when we got the free-kick, there was a lot of discussion about who was going to take it - but Chikara [Fujimoto] said, "Go on, it's yours," and that gave me some self-confidence to have a go."