Omiya Ardija move into the second half of their second season in J1 in reasonably confident mood. Some good results against teams lower down the table have enabled Toshiya Miura's men to climb above half way and close to their overall goal of a top seven spot and fifty goals scored. And while Miura himself might comment that, "At the beginning of the year we had a plan for this season and I think we're about halfway towards achieving it," the fans would probably agree that an improvement is still required in terms of defensive concentration, attacking variation and a more potent strike force.
To be fair, however, coach Miura did warn pre-season that the team might start slowly as the new players bedded in at the club. One of those new arrivals, Yasuhiro Hato, described the challenge awaiting the players over the next few months thus: "After picking up some good results lately, we think we can go higher in the table. We've tried out a number of different variations of the team in the first half of the season and now have a settled idea of what our game is and how we want to play. The co-operation and communication between the players is good - but what these next games against tougher opponents will show is whether or not we can play our football in harder matches as well.
"We've put a lot of work in to defending set pieces and got our reward in the last two games, when we kept a clean sheet both times. [Tomorrow's opponents] Gamba Osaka, though, are a good attacking team and will give us a good test. It's up to us to find their weak point and put them under pressure." As for Gamba, a home draw against Avispa Fukuoka two games ago could be taken as a sign that last season's champions are not without their flaws - and indeed, the fact that they have conceded only one goal fewer than Ardija in their rise to second place in the table this year does seem to indicate that, as with 2005, it is possible to score goals against Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Sidiclei et al.
Of course, Omiya supporters will recall that the Squirrels were the only team to record home-and-away wins over Gamba on their way to the title - but anyone hoping for a repeat in 2006 would do well to note that, despite the departure of Araujo and Masashi Oguro, the men from Kansai still have just about the most potent front line in Japan.
Although top scorer Magno Alves hasn't found the net since early May, his colleagues chip in with goals from throughout the side, as evidenced by their 4-1 thrashing of Kyoto Purple Sanga in round 17, when four different players all found their way onto the scoresheet. This is of course in marked contrast with Ardija's own stuttering 1-0 win over the same Kyoto team just two weeks previously. But the second round starts in earnest tomorrow.