With a draw against Kashima Antlers followed a week later by a 1-0 win over Nagoya Grampus 8, Omiya Ardija have begun to recover from their disappointing start to the 2007 J1 season. But while Robert Verbeek as coach must be pleased with the improvement in results achieved by his team in recent weeks - especially in the absence of certain key players - it is the next two matches that have the potential to act as performance indicators for the whole campaign.
Next week Ardija host a Ventforet Kofu side unsurprisingly struggling to cope with the loss to Gamba Osaka of their main striker Bare and, while Omiya supporters will see this encounter as a cast-iron opportunity to chalk three more points on the board, it is this Saturday's trip to JEF United that is of more immediate interest. For there is a feeling that if the Squirrels can overcome Amar Osim's men, it will suggest that the team are better able to cope with the rigours of the season than the early games had indicated. Lose, on the other hand, and a year battling relegation seems unavoidable.
That said, in some senses there are few teams in Japan's top division as unpredictable as JEF. Following the post-World Cup finals departure of Ivica Osim to manage the Japanese national side, his former charges lost their way - and if the poor results achieved in the second half of 2006 had happened in the earlier part of the year as well, the Chiba club would have been perilously close to losing their J1 status. On the other hand, Osim Jr. deserves credit for masterminding his team to victory in the Nabisco Cup.
As a consequence of such mixed messages as to the overall state of JEF United, opinion pre-season was divided as to how they would fare this year. But a talented squad has in general performed listlessly in its league fixtures to date, the chief exception being an easy 4-0 defeat of Yokohama FC a couple of weeks ago. So which JEF will turn up on Saturday?
Much will depend on the extent to which the likes of Naotake Hanyu are allowed to dictate the play - but the Squirrels have been looking disciplined and tight in recent performances, with the result that only one goal has been conceded in the last four matches. Injury and suspension nevertheless threaten to derail Robert Verbeek's plans; there is still no word on the condition of star striker Kota Yoshihara or playmaker Daigo Kobayashi and it is possible that either or both will turn out against JEF.
Captain Chikara Fujimoto and key defender Leandro will however both miss the game, following a rash of bookings for the former and a red card for the big Brazilian in the win over Nagoya. It is therefore possible that Squirrels fans will have somewhat nervously to contend with a central defensive partnership of Daisuke Tomita and the presumably rusty Seiichiro Okuno.
Elsewhere, while the assumption must be that Nagoya goal hero Salles will continue up front, one potential replacement for Fujimoto is Yusuke Shimada, a player who last turned out for the club in a league match in October 2005. While few would doubt the player's creative abilities, he is clearly unproven at J1 level and, as such, a place in the starting line-up will be a major test for someone who spent all of 2006 on loan at J2 minnows Thespa Kusatsu.
Selection difficulties aside, Omiya Ardija's confidence is on the up. Verbeek's job at this time is to ensure that the players coming in slot into the developing team as smoothly as possible and if that occurs, the Squirrels could contine their recent development.