Ahead of Saturday's J1 encounter between Omiya Ardija and Kashima Antlers, there can be no doubt that both teams have suffered a disappointing 2006 season. While the Squirrels have performed only very intermittently and have struggled to incorporate new players into the rigours of coach Toshiya Miura's defensive system, Kashima have coped poorly with the departure at the end of last year of long-standing coach Toninho Cerezo, strikers Alex Mineiro and Atsushi Yanagisawa in particular suffering a bad run of form.
Omiya were aiming for a top seven finish, whereas the Antlers would always seek to be among the teams challenging for the title. One win in eleven is, however, the sort of form that has seen Ardija slump to fifteenth in the division and Kashima have just come out of a run of four straight defeats that included a 4-0 humiliation at home to JEF United.
Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism in both camps ahead of an interesting-looking game, as Antlers last weekend recorded a 3-1 win over Gamba Osaka and the Squirrels' improved displays have resulted in a victory at JEF and an impressive draw last weekend at Shimizu S-Pulse. "There were quite a few instances in the S-Pulse match when I was able to get forward on the overlap. We played well and, I think, that was much closer to the type of performance that we've envisaged for ourselves throughout the season," suggested defender Yasuhiro Hato. "The team had targets for the year but haven't met them, so our motivation for the last four matches of the season is high because we still want to finish in the best position that we can."
From Omiya's perspective, the partnership between Alison and Daigo Kobayashi - while by no means telepathic - is bearing fruit due in the main to the combination of speed, vision and accuracy of service that the two provide. But Chikara Fujimoto has returned to add his wise head to the midfield and the defence has demonstrated more of the stability that has been missing throughout most of the season.
"In recent games, we've been better at keeping the defence secure whilst at the same time developing our attacking ideas," commented Fujimoto. "We've kept our shape, kept possession and put together counter-attacks much more effectively. But Kashima will give us a test, because their attack is good and they have quality individuals. What we need to be able to do is to compete on an individual basis, player to player."
It's to be hoped that colleague Hato's remarks ring true and that Miura is able to coax some positive displays out of his players, if only to re-pay the orange supporters for their loyalty during the year. The fans will be keen to see more of Alison's determination and pace, especially if they can lead to the commodity so clearly lacking from the Squirrels' play in 2006 - goals.