Omiya Ardija play the last J1 game before the mid-season break on Saturday - and the Mighty Squirrels go into the six-week pause as they started the campaign, namely with a match against top-ranked Gamba Osaka. As regular readers will recall, back in March Ardija put on a battling performance in what was coach Robert Verbeek's first game in charge, only for Yosuke Kataoka's error two minutes from time to let in Gamba striker Bare for an opportunistic effort that looped off the ground, over keeper Hiroki Aratani and into the net (if you'd like a reminder, the GGOA match report can be found here: http://furtho.blog4.fc2.com/blog-entry-741.html , while a clip of the only goal is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_EypC0IGvk ).
Since then, the Blue-and-Blacks have emerged as almost without doubt the best side in Japan, with a brand of attacking football that can help them to accelerate past virtually every opponent. Last weekend, for example, they quickly fell two behind to FC Tokyo, trailed 2-1 at half-time and then ran in five during the second half. Former Omiya man Bare may be the team's top scorer with nine, but with Ryuji Bando and Magno Alves at his disposal coach Akira Nishino has the kind of attacking riches of which his opposite number on Saturday can only dream.
Bare in action for Omiya against Shonan Bellmare, June 2001
For while Gamba's team is based around the idea of getting goals not only from the front players but from every area of the pitch, Robert Verbeek has effectively had to start from scratch to recover from a shattering beginning to the season. After picking up just four points from nine matches at the beginning of the year, the Dutchman's tactical changes have taken effect and made Omiya - if not pretty to watch - extremely difficult to beat. Indeed, the Squirrels' defensive record is actually very slightly better than that of Gamba.
But while Verbeek's team are now undefeated in eight games, Saturday's encounter with the league leaders marks a significant point in the season in several ways. For psychological reasons - as well as the practical matter of sheer points-on-the-board - the coach and players clearly want to keep their unbeaten run going into the six-week break. It would allow them to approach the second half of the season knowing that the disaster of March and April was firmly and irrevocably consigned to the past; to play in the knowledge that Omiya are at least a mid-table team in waiting.
And this is a point that would be underlined in the minds of the players by facing up to the challenge provided by what is Japan's best club team. Coach Verbeek has described in recent weeks how he feels the current Squirrels side are a completely different outfit from that which began the year - and therefore a match against Gamba provides an opportunity to measure progress since the dreadful displays against the likes of FC Tokyo and Shimizu S-Pulse. The Squirrels let slip a point at Banpaku in March; this is not something they have done since the beginning of May, when Sanfrecce Hiroshima's Yuichi Komano galloped through the Ardija defence in the dying seconds to condemn Omiya to a 2-1 defeat.
Ryuji Bando stars for Gamba against FC Tokyo
And in the intervening period they have picked up points against a whole host of top-half teams, knocking an attacking Jubilo Iwata off their stride and stealing a draw at Kawasaki Frontale through Manabu Wakabayashi's delicious late header. In recent weeks, Verbeek has coped well with the injury problems that have so often prevented him from fielding a full-strength side and, as has been reported here on GGOA, much-improved keeper Hiroki Aratani will miss not only the Gamba match but also the next two months of the season, having broken a bone in his arm in Sunday's draw with Yokohama F Marinos.
Forward Kota Yoshihara will surely come back in to the team at the expense of the underperforming Brazilian Enilton, should he recover from injury. That aside, however, it would be surprising if there were any additional changes to the side that took on Marinos, with Daigo Kobayashi and skipper Chikara Fujimoto the key wide men that Ardija fans hope can carve open the Osaka defence. There is no doubt that Gamba will go into the match on Saturday as clear favourites. But Verbeek's men have worked ferociously hard to bloody the noses of so many good teams - and they deserve to have another crack at the current number ones.