A Break... Or Just More Pressure? - S-Pulse Preview
It's been a torrid couple of weeks for Omiya Ardija and their beleaguered supporters. First of all Ventforet Kofu came to Komaba in the rain and splashed to a 2-1 win - their first away victory of 2007 - with the Squirrels struggling to create any chances against distinctly middling opposition.
Then Ardija travelled to bogey side Sanfrecce Hiroshima and put on a much-improved display, taking the lead through in-form midfielder Yoshiyuki Kobayashi. Sanfrecce's Saitama-born hitman Hisato Sato stole in to head an opportunistic equaliser shortly afterwards, but Omiya more than held their own for 44 minutes of the second half.
A disastrous lack of concentration in the dying seconds nevertheless handed Yuichi Komano on a plate the opportunity to steal all three points for the home side. Frustrated and angry, Robert Verbeek complained in the press conference after the match that it wasn't possible to coach players what to do in such situations, stressing they'd been warned about Hiroshima's speed on the break - and so a much-needed and deserved point slipped through Omiya's fingers.
Back to Saitama on Sunday and the Squirrels put in a stirring, committed display against Urawa Reds. Worth their 1-0 half-time lead - courtesy that man Yoshiyuki Kobayashi once again - it proved impossible for battling Ardija to maintain their level of effort in the second period and in the end a draw was a fair result.
But despite the improvement in the team's performances since the debacle at home to Kofu, Omiya have gained just one point from six in their battle against relegation. Verbeek's job by all accounts seems to be safe for the time being; the priority for the Dutchman, though, is to accentuate the good being produced by some of his players and ensure that it is translated into a move up the J1 table.
And so this is the background to Wednesday's home match in the Nabisco Cup with Shimizu S-Pulse, 2-1 winners over a feeble Ardija in a league match at the end of March. S-Pulse's own recent form is reasonable, picking up a 2-1 win in the Shizuoka derby against Jubilo Iwata on holiday Thursday before getting a 1-1 draw of their own on Sunday away at J1 leaders Gamba Osaka.
But they are as good as out of the Nabisco Cup, having picked up just two points from their four games with Kashiwa Reysol and Yokohama F Marinos. In contrast, undefeated Omiya require a single point in order to guarantee totally unexpected progress to the knockout phase of the competition.
Robert Verbeek has in previous Nabisco Cup matches taken the opportunity to field fringe players, with some success. Given what appeared to be a genuinely exhausted Squirrels team that finished Sunday's clash with Urawa, it would be a surprise indeed if the likes of Naoya Saeki did not appear in the starting line-up. Daigo Kobayashi, an unused substitute against Reds, is perhaps likely to feature as he fights to regain full fitness.
The dilemma for Verbeek, however, is that while it is always a pleasure for the players and supporters to do well in Cup competitions, at present the key to the season is progress in the league. So is the game with S-Pulse an opportunity, or a distraction form preparations for Sunday's vital J1 game at Vissel Kobe?