May is proving to be an extremely eventful month for supporters of Omiya Ardija. It began with the agonising disappointment of a last minute defeat at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but then - as far as league performances are concerned - picked up with a terrific fighting display against deadly rivals Urawa Reds; a point at Vissel Kobe, despite playing more than half the match with ten men; and a critical victory over fellow strugglers Yokohama FC in torrential conditions at Komaba on Saturday.
Combine all of this with feverish speculation involving both the signing of international forward Masashi Oguro and the sacking of coach Robert Verbeek, the possible addition to the squad of Takuya Yamada and Takashi Hirano and then the apparent throwing away of a place in the knock-out stage of the Nabisco Cup, and you have a group of fans growing used to living on tenterhooks. What possible twists and turns could yet lie ahead of the Squirrels in the remainder of the 2007 campaign?
Since almost the start of the year, Verbeek has been on the receiving end of a deal of criticism - not least on these very pages - but it ought to be acknowledged that an improvement in Ardija's league results has clearly taken place in recent weeks. Indeed, the team are on an unbeaten run, if it can thus be described, of fully three games and are applying greater pressure to the sides around them in the division as a consequence. The Dutchman's team cannot score goals, it's true, but neither are they conceding and the squad deserve some credit for having ground out results when severely depleted by injury and suspension.
Getting ready to rain really, really hard
Nobody could accuse this Ardija XI of being spectacular or exciting, but the hard work put in by normally unsung grafters like Masato Saito,Daisuke Tomita and Yoshiyuki Kobayashi has done much to provide the team with a solid foundation. Press interviews with captain Chikara Fujimoto before the Yokohama FC game also underlined the feeling that the Omiya squad is becoming a positive and focused unit rather than one preparing to succumb to the certainty of relegation.
This is not, of course, to claim that the orange ointment is entirely free of flies. After two wins and two draws in their first four Nabisco Cup group games, the Squirrels appeared to have one foot in the next round of the competition; but just days after the 1-1 draw against Urawa had earned praise from all quarters, Omiya put in a shocking Cup performance at home to Shimizu S-Pulse and slumped to a deserved 2-1 defeat.
And so Yokohama F Marinos will travel to Kashiwa Reysol on Wednesday night in pole position in the group, with Ardija forced to play catch-up in a distinctly tricky-looking return fixture at S-Pulse. The Squirrels can still get through, but only if they record a better result than Marinos.
Any assessment at the moment of a possible team line-up has to begin with a roll-call of players ruled out of contention, due either to fitness concerns (Naoya Saeki, presumably Daigo Kobayashi and the forgotten man of Omiya Ardija, Naoto Sakurai) or disciplinary reasons (Leandro). Yasuhiro Hato covers himself in glory by actually falling into both camps, having got injured while committing the offence that saw him sent off at Vissel Kobe.
S-Pulse battle to a 0-0 draw at Kofu on Saturday
Coach Verbeek has shown some reluctance to start with Hayato Hashimoto despite a series of impressive displays as substitute, and this being the case perhaps the most likely scenario against S-Pulse is for a return to the 4-5-1 formation. Enilton is back in favour as a striker, meaning that Kota Yoshihara and Fujimoto could take the wide positions with the Saito / Yoshiyuki Kobayashi / Yosuke Kataoka trio in the middle.
Clearly the league and survival in the top flight must take priority over making progress in a cup competition. But with a very difficult J1 fixture at Kawasaki Frontale to come on Sunday, nothing can prepare the Squirrels team more effectively than a confidence-boosting win at Nihondaira and a place in the next round of the Nabisco Cup.