Omiya Ardija slipped to a somewhat unfortunate 3-1 defeat at the hands of J1 champions Gamba Osaka on Wednesday evening - but will take heart from a much improved performance, which most observers agree was the Squirrels' best of the season so far. Coach Toshiya Miura reverted to a more traditional Omiya 4-4-2 formation, with Hiroshi Morita picking up a rare start alongside Naoto Sakurai, Manabu Wakabayashi and Tatsunori Hisanaga dropping to the bench.
It was a brighter start from Ardija, as Yukio Tsuchiya and Yasuhiro Hato kept things solid on the flanks while always seeking to link up with Daigo Kobayashi and Chikara Fujimoto in setting up attacks. Indeed it was a Hato overlap down the right-hand side that led to Omiya's first attempt on goal sixteen minutes in, a subsequent Daigo corner being headed just off target by Morita at the far post.
Fernandinho receives congratulations after scoring the opener for Gamba
At this stage of the game, Magno Alves and Fernandinho were being well monitored by Seiichiro Okuno and Toninho, Jun Marques Davidson mopping up any loose balls and denying space to the dangerous Gamba front men. In the 21st minute, however, Fernandinho's powerful shot just got the better of Hiroki Aratani and gave the home side the lead - and Omiya conceded the opening goal for the fourth time in five J-League games in 2006.
For the remainder of the opening period, the Squirrels were chasing the game as the midfield found it hard to get to grips with the fast-moving Gamba forward line. At half-time, however, Miura changed things around in the centre of the field, taking off Marques and aiming for a more attacking formation by replacing him with Yoshiyuki Kobayashi, who had instructions to use his vision and always be looking for attacking options.
Sakurai goes close for the Squirrels
Just two minutes after the break, Yoshiyuki and Sakurai exchanged passes and it was Sakurai who shook off the attentions of the Gamba defence and lashed in a left-footed shot that narrowly missed pulling Omiya level. This looked like Ardija's golden opportunity had been squandered, but in the 55th minute the boys in orange made it all square, when Fujimoto's left-wing cross flicked off Morita and was nudged past Yosuke Fujigaya and over the line by Sakurai for his second of the season. Morita was then replaced by Wakabayashi, as Omiya sought to press home their advantage and four minutes later, Sakurai again went close after good work down the left from Fujimoto and Daigo.
With Gamba boss Akira Nishino also making attacking substitutions, both sides were clearly going for the win, a fact underlined when Masato Saito came on to play in a less defensive role than Yosuke Kataoka, supporting the attack with his calm, accurate passing. But the reigning champions too were carving out opportunities and with twelve minutes remaining, sub Masafumi Maeda forced a desperate save from Aratani.
This set alarm bells ringing as the match entered its closing stages and the visitors were pushed back towards their own goal line. In the 83rd minute, it was Maeda's ball in from the right that was despatched by Magno Alves for his sixth goal of the season, Omiya's defence finally cracking under the pressure of one of the strongest attacks in the league. In the final seconds, Gamba clinched it when Fernandinho's run was finished off by another substitute, former Vissel Kobe star Ryuji Bando.
A decent effort late on from Baldy
And so the Squrriels travelled back to Saitama pointless, but optimistic that they can put up good performances in the next few extremely tough J1 fixtures. "We didn't play badly today, not at all," Chikara Fujimoto felt. "We started the game very well, handled their attack without too much of a problem and were good on the counter ourselves.
"In the second half, we knew they would have a tough defence and when Yoshiyuki came on, that helped us to tie things up more strongly in midfield to get our own attacks going. When we pulled back to 1-1, our rhythm was good but we were just lacking a bit of firepower. Overall, though, that was the best performance of the season so far and if we keep going in this direction, we can beat Kashima on Sunday."
Naoto Sakurai agreed with his team-mate's assessment. "Yes, just a very frustrating result for us. We played okay and on another day could have won the game. After Yoshiyuki and Saito came on, our attacking options were really increased and the second half performance was good. So it's a bit strange to say that despite having lost today, if we keep playing like we have done this evening, we'll get some good results."