So this was it. As Omiya Ardija's J1 season re-started on Saturday evening at Nihondaira, home of Shimizu S-Pulse, all the pre-match activity had pointed to a fourth defeat of the season for the Squirrels at the hands of their orange rivals from Shizuoka. The events of the last few days may have caused panic amongst the club's supporters and a kind of chortling merriment in the Japanese sports press, but what matters now is performances and results on the pitch - and remarkably, incredibly, Ardija's new so-called "salaryman coach" Satoru Sakuma pretty much delivered on both fronts.
There were few surprises on Sakuma's teamsheet, with keeper Hiroki Aratani and key central defender Leandro ruled out through injury as expected. Young right back Terukazu Tanaka was perhaps the one eyebrow-raiser, coming in in favour of Takuro Nishimura, while Denis Marques made his debut as expected up front alongside Kota Yoshihara. And overall, this new Ardija played well against a very good team - a share of the spoils probably being the right result.
Omiya started off brightly and took the lead as early as the fifth minute, when Daigo Kobayashi curled home his first league goal of the season - a somewhat tame free kick that bounced in front of S-Pulse's former Urawa Reds keeper Yohei Nishibe and into the net. But the advantage didn't last long as Yosuke Kataoka let the ball bounce over him for South Korean international forward Cho Jae Jin to pounce and angle a left foot shot past the stranded Koji Ezumi.
Some trickery from Denis Marques
In an action-packed game, Omiya went in front once again through a mesmerising bit of skill from new Brazilian star Denis Marques. On the edge of the penalty area and with virtually no space to play with, he nevertheless waltzed around several S-Pulse players before putting the ball on a plate for Yoshihara to volley home from six yards. And indeed, the Squirrels should have scored again in 33rd minute, when Denis Marques set up Chikara Fujimoto. The Ardija skipper crossed perfectly for Daigo, who could only direct his header at Nishibe, but the S-Pulse goalie also made a brilliant save from the same player's attempt on the rebound.
The home side equalised for the second time in the match in the 55th minute, when Fernandinho escaped the attentions of the hapless Kataoka to rifle past Ezumi from 20 yards. And in the later stages of the game, both teams had chances and should really have added to their respective tallies. In injury time, Fujimoto set up substitute Hayato Hashimoto who with only Nishibe to beat smashed it past the post. At the other end, it nearly went all wrong in the last few seconds when Akinori Nishizawa - a player who always seems to find the net against Omiya - on this occasion hit the woodwork after dribbling past Ezumi.
"I’ve actually scored"
And so a draw was probably the right result from what was undoubtedly an extremely demanding fixture for Sakuma to begin his career as a fully-fledged J-League coach. A point has to be considered a bonus, although thanks to FC Tokyo's capitulation at home to Oita Trinita, the Squirrels even so drop back into the automatic relegation places. The matches come thick and fast at this point in the season and Vissel Kobe on Wednesday is a game that the new management team will have pencilled in for a win. However sceptical they have been, the Squirrel Nation can't complain about Sakuma's performance today and he's off to a decent start.