A much-improved performance from Omiya Ardija saw the Squirrels disappointed to come away with only a draw against high-flying Shimizu S-Pulse in their J-League clash at Nihondaira on Saturday. Coach Toshiya Miura elected to revert to his slightly more cautious formation by dropping Hayato Hashimoto in favour of the more defensive-minded Tatsunori Hisanaga, but that aside it was the by-now-familiar Ardija line-up that took to the field - including the Alison / Daigo Kobayashi partnership up front against an S-Pulse defence that had conceded four against JFL side Tochigi SC just a week ago.
Cutting off most of S-Pulse's attempts to provide their own strikers Marquinhos and Cho Jae Jin with service, it was a determined opening from the away side as Alison in particular looked alert and mobile. The Brazilian proved a thorn in the side of the Shimizu defence all the time he was on the field and was a willing target for the promptings of Chikara Fujimoto and Daigo. At the other end, Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya continued to be successful in their efforts to protect Hiroki Aratani, most notably from the threat of the overlapping runs of Daisuke Ichikawa.
The Orange Derby at Nihondaira
Ardija looked the likelier to score right up until the moment when they conceded the opening goal mid-way through the first half. Experienced midfielder Teruyoshi Ito broke free on the right and put in a pin-point cross which the dangerous Marquinhos despatched past Aratani with a fine header. In spite of this potential blow to their confidence, the Squirrels kept trying to move forward and create chances, Daisuke Tomita going close with a header of his own and Daigo just off-target with a shot. Another dangerous run from Alison ended when he was brought down by Ichikawa, and the resulting Daigo free-kick led to a corner as Omiya peppered the S-Pulse goal in search of an equaliser that their play undoubtedly deserved.
But the teams changed ends with the score still at 1-0 and the play dominated by Ardija, Alison and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi both going close to an equaliser in the early stages of the second period. It seemed increasingly difficult to believe that the Squirrels were still losing the game when Toshiya Miura threw on the scorer of last week's winner Manabu Wakabayashi in favour of Tomita on 56 minutes - and the tall striker made an immediate impact, as just two minutes later he was brought down inside the box for a penalty kick. Daigo converted to make it 1-1 and matters improved still further for Omiya seconds later when Marquinhos was sent off for a second bookable offence as the referee adjudged him to have dived in the area.
Manabu Wakabayashi goes for a cross
Using their numerical advantage, the speed of Alison and the height of Wakabayashi, the Squirrels upped the pressure yet further on S-Pulse keeper Yohei Nishibe and his defence. In the 65th minute, Nishibe did well to keep out a Wakabayashi diving header and Yosuke Kataoka also went close with one of his long-range specials shortly afterwards. Further substitutions inevitably followed - Hayato Hashimoto appearing for Fujimoto and, bewilderingly, the ever-ineffective Hiroshi Morita for Alison - and even though Aratani ended the game much less busy than his opposite number, a second Omiya goal never came.
Squirrels top scorer King Daigo
And so a 1-1 draw sees Omiya slip to fifteenth in the table, but a ten-point advantage over Avispa Fukuoka and Cerezo Osaka means that J1 football is almost guaranteed with only four matches remaining. In seeking to finish the season strongly, however, the trick will be to see if the boys in orange can transfer another impressive away performance into a good display and points-on-the-board at home next week against an unpredictable Kashima Antlers side, who on Saturday recovered from conceding an early Magno Alves goal to beat Gamba Osaka.
Amid rumours that Omiya will seek to bring former loan striker Leandro back to the club after his startlingly successful season in J2 at cash-strapped Montedio Yamagata, it is tremendous news for Squirrels fans that Alison too seems to be finishing 2006 by staking a claim for a long-term place in the side.