When Omiya Ardija announced the signing during the close season of former Consadole Sapporo striker Kota Yoshihara from J-League champions Gamba Osaka, there were two main aspects of Yoshihara's circumstances that sprang to mind when considering the likelihood of it being a successful deal. First, that there was little doubt that Yoshihara had the talent and the goalscoring record to make a valuable contribution to the Squirrels as they set out to establish themselves on a firmer footing in J1. Second, that his confidence would undoubtedly nevertheless have taken something of a battering during the course of 2005, a campaign that saw him squeezed out of the front line at Gamba in favour of the Oguro / Araujo partnership that was ultimately to play a major part in winning the title.
The main priority for Omiya fans, therefore, was to see the club help a key new signing to put last year behind him and concentrate on making the most of his undoubted talent, to the benefit of both player and team. And it has to be acknowledged that in the case of Chikara Fujimoto, coach Toshiya Miura and his staff do have a track record in guiding a player back to form - for Fujimoto's desire to prove himself once again at the top level was clearly exploited to everyone's advantage, particularly in the first two thirds of last season. Yoshihara, however, can look back on 2006 as so far having been a year more akin to that of Seiichiro Okuno than 2005-vintage Fujimoto.
Very unluckily struck down with a niggling injury in pre-season, Yoshihara's start to his Omiya career was unavoidably delayed as he struggled to get over a back problem and he eventually made a promising debut in the sixth J1 game of the season against Kashima Antlers. His pace and also his evident quickness of thought enabled him to link up well with Fujimoto and Daigo Kobayashi and on another day he could have had a goal to celebrate, as the Squirrels slipped to a distinctly unfortunate defeat. But since popping up as an unused substitute against Urawa Reds at the end of April, Kota has experienced an Okuno-esque disappearance from the Squirrels first team scene.
As with Okuno, it is totally unclear whether the one-time Japan international is injured or has simply fallen from favour with Miura, as the coach has juggled his attacking options not only in terms of selection, but also by bringing in Gral and letting go Saul Martinez. If Yoshihara is injured, there would surely be no issue with club management explaining this fact to confused supporters keen to see a potential new star wear the orange shirt.
If Yoshihara has for some reason clashed with Miura, 2006 will surely be shaping up to be a season far more frustrating for the player than 2005 ever was, for he must have felt confident that in moving to a smaller club he would be given every opportunity to slot into the team and to find his form. Admittedly, Kota has yet to find the net in his handful of appearances - but neither could he be said to have put in bad performances, particularly in the context of a team struggling to find its attacking feet.
Although the forward line has been chopped and changed with every game, most of the time, then, Miura has eventually ended up adopting the fallback position of using Naoto Sakurai and Hiroshi Morita up front. While it would be unfair to ignore the fact that his heading has improved and that Morita chipped in three goals to the Squirrels' failed Nabisco Cup campaign, the ex-Albirex Niigata and Sagan Tosu man has been less successful in the league and has a single strike against Oita Trinita to show for his efforts - and comparatively extensive playing time - in J1.
Morita essentially fails to pose that much of a physical threat to opposing defences, lacking as he does the strength to fight for the ball in the penalty area. He is also poor as a target man due to an amply-demonstrated inability to hold on to possession when the the likes of Daigo and Fujimoto play a longer pass upfield: in blunt terms, it bounces off him and comes straight back at the under-pressure Ardija defence.
Sakurai has also been a key player, showing more obvious strengths than Morita in what he has himself acknowledged as a good start to the season. While wearing a permanent look of apparently pie-eyed exhaustion, Sakurai is someone who is quick to exploit space in the penalty area and to take advantage of any sloppy defensive play, resulting in his having scored three J1 goals so far. But that said, really stamping his mark on a game is something that Saku finds more difficult and a at a time when Omiya need to assert themselves as more of an attacking force his tendency to go missing for long periods is not a positive characteristic.
All of which highly unsatisfactory state of affairs leaves just the two other strikers to consider. Manabu Wakabayashi has most frequently been used as a substitute to replace Morita as "the other tall front man". Having made only a limited number of appearances - and, in typical Miura style this year, those appearances have generally been for thirty minutes here and twenty minutes there - it's difficult to have a truly clear idea of Wakabayashi's strengths and weaknesses, especially in contrast with Morita.
However, although like Morita he's no target man, Waka is a hard worker, reasonably mobile and seems to have a better idea of what his role is in the team in terms of making his presence felt in and around the penalty area. The former non-league striker never looks as if he's going to contribute goals of beauty, but to his credit he does on occasions do the dirty jobs and come up with some assists.
On loan from Yokohama F Marinos and with every indication being that he will return to Kanagawa at the end of July, Gral has by and large been charged with the job of forming a partnership with Morita. His highly impressive record in the J-League would indicate that he's more of an out-and-out goalscorer - not something of which Sakurai or Morita could ever be accused - but in the midst of the disarray around him has hit the target only three times, all in the Nabisco Cup.
When paired up with Morita, the Brazilian's style is in sharp contrast with that of Sakurai, in that his game is built far less on pace and more on a kind of bustling muscularity that requires accurate service to feet in the box to help him play to his strengths. In this, he has been something of a hostage to fortune, given the downturn in form of Fujimoto and the lack of clarity with which the midfield generally have set about their tasks.