All Work But No Goals - Squirrels Draw A Blank As Reds Take Chances
After the short break for Asian Cup qualifiers, Omiya Ardija returned to J1 action against deadly rivals Urawa Reds on Sunday looking depleted on paper, star midfielder Daigo Kobayashi having returned from national team duty with an injury that kept him out, together with long-term casualties Chikara Fujimoto and defensive lynchpin Yukio Tsuchiya.
More promisingly, Naoto Sakurai returned to the bench, where he was joined by new signing Alison as Kota Yoshihara and Hiroshi Morita played the big-guy-and-little-guy front pairing. Elsewhere in the side, Jun Marques Davidson picked up a now-rare start alongside Yosuke Kataoka in the middle of midfield, while at the back Takuro Nishimura and Yasunari Hiraoka came in for Yasuhiro Hato and Tsuchiya respectively.
A rare archive shot of Hiroshi Morita apparently having scored a goal
Nishimura and Daisuke Tomita in particular began the match looking like effective attacking options on the overlap, as Ardija probed the Reds defence for an opening in the early stages. But chances were far from easy to come by and it was the title-challenging Urawa who came closest to opening the scoring when on nineteen minutes they struck the woodwork following a free-kick.
Ten minutes later, the Squirrels escaped punishment again when an attack broke down following a Yoshiyuki Kobayashi free kick and Urawa broke quickly, Yuichiro Nagai combining well with Washington who forced a fine save from Hiroki Aratani. The first real opportunity for Omiya didn't arrive until four minutes before the break as Yoshiyuki put Kota Yoshihara in the clear, but the former Gamba Osaka man couldn't find the finish that was equal to his effective running and to the frustration of the orange supporters shot into the side netting.
The same player was guilty of missing a further half-chance just before the interval, but just when it seemed as if the first period would end goalless, Aratani was unable to hold on to a Tomoyuki Sakai shot and Washington reacted quickly to put the Reds in front. It was somewhat rough justice on Omiya, who had held their own without ever genuinely threatening the solid Urawa back line, but at the same time indicative of the gulf that exists between the two teams in terms of quality attacking players.
Tatsunori Hisanaga runs around to little effect
Ardija went out for the second half desperate to fight back on to level terms by upping the pressure on the opposing defence - and Toninho came close to a crucial header from a corner seconds after the re-start, while Yoshiyuki forced a save from Norihiro Yamagishi shortly afterwards. Half-chances followed for both teams as the play swung from one end to the other, with Toshiya Miura making the first attempt to shake things up via the use of substitutions as he replaced Morita with Sakurai just before the hour.
But the increased mobility and pace of the incomer still didn't enable the Squirrels to engineer any rock-solid opportunities and further alterations saw Alison and Hayato Hashimoto come on for Yoshihara and Tatsunori Hisanaga respectively. At the same time, Reds shored up the defence yet further with the introduction of Hideki Uchidate in place of Washington and it was scarcely a surprise when Nagai found space in the Omiya back line and made it 2-0 in stoppage time.
Alison fights his way thru the Reds defence
A gutsy Squirrels performance, then, but a very predictable result against the Red enemy, who faced with an under-strength Ardija were rarely stretched when it came to protecting their goal. "It's always going to be tought to get a result against a strong team like Urawa unless you put them under pressure," commented Miura afterwards.
"We were reasonably stable defensively but conceding just before half-time meant that we had to change the balance of the team. It was an OK performance but obviously we can't be satisfied with the result." Debutant Alison described his first taste of the J-League thus: "It's unfortunate that we weren't able to create more chances, but Urawa have a strong defence. What I have to concentrate on now is developing my fitness and working on how best to fit in with my team-mates, to reduce the number of mistakes we make when playing together."