It may be Daigo Kobayashi of all the current Omiya Ardija squad who is on the verge of international recognition, but the identity of perhaps the most significant figure in the team's excellent form at the moment is far more of a shock to Squirrels fans. Nevertheless, it is indeed much-maligned midfielder Tatsunori Hisanaga who has weighed in with no fewer than three assists and a goal in the victories against Jubilo Iwata in midweek and on Saturday in the team's latest triumph over Ventforet Kofu.
The 28-year-old, who is on a long-term loan from Avispa Fukuoka and indeed nearly returned to Kyushu in the close season, seems to have had a new lease of life since the league programme re-started, bringing a fresh attacking element to Omiya's play that has been marked by its absence for almost the whole of the time since Hisanaga came into the team.
Omiya’s danger men, Naoto Sakurai and Gral
But Omiya's re-start to the J1 programme has been nothing short of inspirational, with five goals scored from open play and six points in the bag, meaning that players and supporters alike can begin to look up the table at the teams to be caught, rather than glancing over a nervous shoulder at the likes of Nagoya and Fukuoka. Only one change was made from the side that beat Jubilo, Toninho returning from suspension in place of club captain Seiichiro Okuno, who dropped to the subs' bench. Yosuke Kataoka and Masato Saito therefore held on to their positions in the middle of midfield, while Gral and Naoto Sakurai similarly continued up front.
It was nevertheless Kofu, 3-1 winners over Kyoto Purple Sanga in mid-week, who were actually quicker out of the starting blocks, causing all sort of problems for Yukio Tsuchiya and co. in the Omiya defence. In the seventh minute, Ardija were out-fought in the midfield and the ball came to striker Taro Hasegawa, who lashed it against Hiroki Aratani's crossbar.
Seconds later, however, Daisuke Tomita freed Hisanaga on the left and the wide man made good progress down the flank before flighting in a cross that was met by Gral with a diving header that made it 1-0 to Omiya. The game had suddenly and dramatically been turned on its head and this new-look Squirrels team were not about to let their advantage slip.
Another goal attempt from Tatsunori Hisanaga
Just before the quarter-hour, Kobayashi received the ball near the centre circle and produced from his bag of tricks a superb through ball for Sakurai, who, with the Ventforet defence split open, grabbed his second smart finish in two games for a 2-0 lead. On twenty minutes, amazingly, it was 3-0 - a pacy, dangerous attack this time based on Tsuchiya's pass to Hisanaga, who calmly served up an assist for another header from Gral. Daigo came closest to adding a fourth with a 31st-minute header that went over the bar following good work from Tomita, but all in all it was a 45 minutes the like of which Omiya supporters have not witnessed for a long time.
After the re-start, Ardija were yet again somewhat sluggish in their play but even so Yasuhiro Hato can consider himself highly unfortunate to have given away a penalty when a long ball into the area simply appeared to strike his hand. Bare reduced the deficit with his spot kick and for the second game in succession Aratani found himself picking the ball out of his net very early in the second half.
Omiya seemed to have restored their advantage six minutes later when the consistently dangerous Sakurai netted, only to have it chalked off for a questionable foul by Gral on Ventforet keeper Kensaku Abe. The flow of play then moved to being more of a midfield battle, for which the tiring Saito was replaced by Jun Marques Davidson, but although Ardija fans hoping for more goals were disappointed, there was never a chance that Kofu were going to get back into the game.
Gral makes it 3-0 with a powerful header
"When we played Kofu before, it was obvious that they're a very aggressive side - but we feel like a settled team now and I never thought we'd lose the game," commented Toshiya Miura. "As against Jubilo, we were conscious that the start was very important and I'm not satisfied with that aspect of our game, because Kofu really got to grips with things quickly. Going ahead when we did, so soon after they'd almost scored, that really changed the direction of the match.
"After that, we could play comfortably on the counter and know that we'd be able to create chances, especially down the left-hand side. We were very aware at half-time that we'd started the second half against Jubilo badly and obviously wanted to avoid the same mistake, but I think we were unlucky with the penalty decision. I'm happy if we play on the counter in the second half when the match is like that and we have a sense of security at being able to carry it off now. That was a good win. There are things to reflect on, of course, but we're looking forward to the next game with a lot of confidence."