The nightmare well and truly became reality for Omiya Ardija and their long-suffering supporters at Komaba on Saturday evening, as another in an increasingly long line of hopeless performances left the team battered and bruised by Nagoya Grampus 8, while the fans have more reason than ever to fear that they may be watching J2 football this time next year. Following on from promotion at the end of 2004 and throughout most of 2005, there was the feeling that the Squirrels, as the undisputed minnows of the top flight, were punching above their weight as they competed with the top teams in the land, on occasions leaving the likes of Urawa Reds, Yokohama F Marinos and Gamba Osaka with a bloody nose.
Now, however, a vociferously-supported Ventforet Kofu are filling the role of everyone's favourite small club, while Ardija appear simply to have lost the knack of competing in the required manner and feel exposed as out of their depth - a state of affairs mirrored by Omiya's dwindling crowds, as if belief in the whole unlikely exercise can no longer be sustained. To be fair, a gate in excess of 8000 against Nagoya was better than had been feared, but the performance was nevertheless a very long way indeed from the necessary standard.
Bereft of ideas and hamstrung by his own overriding sense of caution, coach Toshiya Miura reverted to a front pairing of Hiroshi Morita and Naoto Sakurai, as the luckless Kota Yoshihara, drained of confidence, took a place once again on the subs' bench. Daigo Kobayashi returned to the starting XI following injury although Chikara Fujimoto was unable to displace Tatsunori Hisanaga and thus remained a substitute, while Seiichiro Okuno continued alongside Yukio Tuschiya in the middle of the defence as Toninho completed his suspension.
The Squirrels started reasonably enough, in particular presenting some threat via Daigo at set pieces, although it was from open play that Yoshiyuki Kobayashi went closest to opening the scoring on seventeen minutes after being fed by Sakurai. A quiet game then exploded into life just before the half hour, when Takuro Nishimura's right-wing cross was beautifully finished by Hisanaga to put Ardija into the lead. It was an advantage that lasted mere seconds, as Grampus striker Keita Sugimoto fired in a shot from the edge of the box past Koji Ezumi.
But just while the home supporters were about to bemoan their misfortune, things immediately got worse for Omiya. Again sluggish in defending a long ball, the back four were unable to cope with Keisuke Honda's centre from the left-hand side onto the head of summer signing Frode Johnsen, whose effort saw Ezumi beaten for the second time in a minute. With no changes being made at half-time, it was up to the same eleven Squirrels players to turn things around and in the early stages of the second period, Morita got in a header from a Hisanaga cross that forced Seigo Narazaki to make a save.
Yet again, however, this was an Omiya performance with no bite or conviction - and while Miura's men floundered, Nagoya grew in confidence. It was no surprise at all, therefore, when the visitors extended their lead in 58th minute, Sugimoto converting Naoshi Nakamura's cross for his second of the match. Ardija tried in vain to press forward and somehow find a way back into the game, Fujimoto having been brought on in place of Daisuke Tomita, but just in case there was still any doubt remaining about where the points were going, Sugimoto claimed a hat trick after a fine run and shot.
Almost inevitably, Miura's replacement of Morita by Manabu Wakabayashi had almost no effect and even when Alison came on for Daigo in the last few minutes, matters were still comfortable enough for Narazaki and his colleagues - for it seems at present as if whatever combination of attacking players Miura utilises, this is an Omiya side lacking almost totally in self-belief. And when the underfire defence is unable to cope with a side such as Nagoya who offer some mobility and invention up front, there is only going to be one winner.