Omiya Ardija return to J1 action on Saturday with another crucial fixture, this time away at Cerezo Osaka. The four games in July since the World Cup have left Squirrels supporters in a state of high anxiety, which is something of a surprise given that they yielded nine points and did much to move the team away from the relegation zone. But two stirring performances against Jubilo Iwata and Ventforet Kofu were followed by perhaps the poorest display of the year at an out of form Nagoya Grampus 8, who nevertheless battled hard and thoroughly deserved the points against a feeble Ardija.
Omiya then scrapped out a 1-0 home win over struggling Kyoto Purple Sanga, but the flash of inspiration that lit up parts of the Jubilo and Kofu games seems to have slipped through the team's collective fingers. And with the shock of Gral's return to Yokohama F Marinos to contend with since then, goalshy Omiya are well and truly down to the bare bones as an attacking force. Kota Yoshihara's pre-season back injury evidently took months to heal properly and has without doubt restricted the former international player's first team opportunities.
There nevertheless appear to be doubts in the mind of coach Toshiya Miura that Yoshihara has grasped fully his defensive responsibilities in terms of tracking back and providing additional cover. Therefore it seems inevitable that Hiroshi Morita and Naoto Sakurai will begin tomorrow's game, despite the increasingly loud calls from fans that Yoshihara be given a real chance to show what he can do in J1 following a number of goals in recent reserve team outings.
While more positive news for Omiya came in the form of star midfielder Daigo Kobayashi's international debut as a second half substitute during Japan's 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, on top of the wild fluctuations in the Squirrels' recent form lies the fact that they failed to beat Cerezo in two Nabisco Cup meetings during May. A 1-1 draw in the rain at Komaba was followed days later by a 3-2 away defeat, results that do not augur well considering the fact that - after coming within an ace of winning the league last season - Cerezo have had a truly disastrous 2006.
They currently lie bottom of the table, five points behind Kyoto and Avispa Fukuoka, fully ten points from the safety of fifteenth place. Their form coming into tomorrow's clash is woeful: six straight defeats have yielded only two goals, their last home game was a 5-1 defeat at the hands of FC Tokyo and the Flaming Pinks' single victory of the season was back in March. Top scorer is veteran Akinori Nishizawa with four, but even he hasn't netted since April and Cerezo fans will be hoping that returning hero Yoshito Okubo will again be able to keep relegation at bay, as he did almost single-handedly in 2004.
"We've used the time off since the last game to get everyone refreshed following that busy period of four consecutive games," said Toshiya Miura as his team prepared for the match. "Cerezo's position at the moment is obviously not good, but they have individual quality and now have Okubo back as well, so they'll be tough opponents. Our aim going into the match is to begin well and from then to play our own style of football throughout the ninety minutes. We've had a difficult job in this first half of the season because a lot of new players have moved to the club and we've all had to make some adjustments as a result. But the results in July I think demonstrate the fact that we're an improving side and are looking good going into the game tomorrow."