The day that all J-League fans have been waiting for for three long months has almost arrived and on Saturday, the 2007 season commences. For Omiya Ardija and their new coach Robert Verbeek, it is the start of a potentially difficult journey - and the first step on that journey could indeed scarcely be tougher.
For the Squirrels travel to potential title winners Gamba Osaka, in what is a repeat of the club's first-ever fixture in the top flight two years ago. That day, Toshiya Miura's simple containing game caught Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Masashi Oguroet al off guard and, despite a minimum of possession and scoring chances, late goals from Hiroshi Morita and Naoto Sakurai gave the men in orange a truly sensational start to life in J1.
In 2007, however, the siuation is very different. Having if anything even over-achieved in 2005, coach Miura failed to live up to his promise and was unable to take the team forward. Verbeek has come in with no room for manouevre whatsoever, in terms of being able to bring in any new players of his own choosing and as such the squad is essentially pre-determined.
Big Bob directs traffic in training
The Dutchman's options look particularly limited in the back line and indications are that Yosuke Kataoka will drop back from his central midfield berth of last season to partner the incoming Leandro. The heart of Omiya's defence, therefore, is totally different from the reasonably successful Toninho / Yukio Tsuchiya pairing of 2006 - a fact that Magno Alves and Bare will no doubt be keen to exploit.
On each side of the defence, Takuro Nishimura and Yasuhiro Hato would seem to be frontrunners; not something that will bring too much cheer to Ardija supporters following their less-than-overwhelming contributions last year. This also means that a question mark may conceivably hang over Daisuke Tomita, a first-team regular since his arrival at the club in 2003.
Team selection in pre-season matches would suggest that Verbeek and his assistant Jun Nakamura are following Miura's lead as far as formation is concerned, with a basically defensive duo in the middle of midfield. Naoya Saeki appears to be favourite for one of those slots, in all probability alongside either Yoshiyuki Kobayashi or the stalwart figure of Masato Saito.
Yosuke Kataoka. Shoot!
In all honesty, however, this area of the team is unlikely to win too much favour with Squirrels fans desparate to see some flair and attacking play. Key men to create chances are undoubtedly new skipper Chikara Fujimoto and Hayato Hashimoto, the latter of whom burst onto the scene late in 2006. Nevertheless, Hasshi-kun needs to impose himself upon play as a genuine force and a series of strong performances early in the new campaign are vital not only for his confidence but also for the team's wellbeing.
Last year's star Daigo Kobayashi will be used as a link-up man between the midfield and main striker Enilton and, like his friend Hashimoto, a lot rests on the shoulders of the new Japan international. The feeling remains that, with this strategy, it is too easy for the opposition to contain Ardija as an attacking force (a principle that can be summarised by the phrase, "stop Hashimoto and Daigo and you stop Omiya". This means that the team are all to often on the back foot and the defence is being put under pressure.
Tomorrow's clash with Gamba is without doubt a baptism of fir for Verbeek, against arguably the strongest attacking line-up in the J-League. As such, it would be difficult to forecast anything other than a convincing home win - but that, of course, is what everyone said two years ago.