29th July is a date that currently looms large in the diaries of Omiya Ardija supporters. For in a season of disappointment, it marks the date upon which Toshiya Miura's underperforming team last won a home J1 match - a scrappy 1-0 against Kyoto Purple Sanga. But after Saturday's feeble display that saw Kashima Antlers take the lead within the opening seconds, there remains only one more opportunity to obtain a victory in front of the orange fans, when relegation-threatened Cerezo Osaka visit Saitama Stadium on Sunday.
It is not as if the line-up is lacking in stability, in that all areas of the team are more or less settled for the first time in a turbulent year: Toninho and Yukio Tsuchiya form a reasonably tough partnership in the middle of the back four, the Yosuke Kataoka / Yoshiyuki Kobayashi / Tatsunori Hisanaga / Chikara Fujimoto quartet in midfield are established enough and Alison / Daigo Kobayashi have enjoyed enough playing time together to become familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses.
But as in the last home fixture against FC Tokyo at the end of October, this fragile Ardija team conceded early and never looked likely to be able to fight their way back into contention. Chikashi Masuda played a looping ball into the area and young Antlers striker Yuzo Tashiro arced a header over Hiroki Aratani into the net. Two minutes later and Kashima almost doubled their lead from a Takuya Nozawa free-kick, but Aratani was this time alert to the danger and rescued a very shaky-looking defence.
There were barely any opportunities for a woefully uninventive home side to put together any attacking moves in the opening stages of the match as Paulo Autori's men dominated possession, while Omiya's midfield was notable mainly by its absence. Yosuke Kataoka and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi seemed to find themselves over-run and outclassed, leaving Alison in particular an isolated figure up front.
The first half-chance for Ardija occurred as late as the 29th minute, when Tsuchiya battled to get onto the end of a Daigo free-kick - but even then, the Kashima defence held sway and Hitoshi Sogahata's goal remained resolutely unthreatened. Two minutes later, Tsuchiya headed a Daigo corner over the bar but apart from a late Fujimoto shot that went just wide, the first 45 minutes saw very poor fare indeed from Omiya.
Toshiya Miura made one change at the break in an attempt to pull things round, bringing off full-back Daisuke Tomita as Manabu Wakabayashi came on to form a partnership with Alison. As Fujimoto and Daigo concentrated on providing service from the flanks for the tall figure of Wakabayashi, the Squirrels started the second period a little more brightly. But the game was as good as over on 54 minutes, when Masashi Motoyama fed Fabio Santos down the Antlers right and Tashiro dived to head in the resulting cross at the far post.
It was not until the 70th minute that Miura responded by throwing on Hayato Hashimoto for Hisanaga as an overlapping full-back, but even then the Kashima back line were able to hold the Ardija attack at arm's length without feeling the need to break into a sweat. Six minutes from time, the impressive Motoyama concluded the scoring with a rasping shot from just outside the penalty area.
And so the optimism from the recent away matches at JEF United and Shimizu S-Pulse has well and truly dissipated after such a weak showing from Miura's team, who seem to be limping over the line as they do the absolute minimum in order to stay in J1. The extent to which the players themselves can shoulder the blame is questionable - but what is without doubt is that the club this year have headed in the wrong direction and instead of consolidating further as a top level side have slipped back, perilously close to the relegation zone and homeless into the bargain. A change of coach is surely now what is required to help Omiya to compete effectively with outfits of a similar stature, wiping the slate clean for 2007.