Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Squirrel's Eye View: Learning From S-Pulse

Five minutes from the end of yesterday's match at a wet and chilly Nihondaira, it looked as if Omiya were going to get away with a deserved point in a 1-1 draw - and GGOA were preparing to eat a slice of humble pie following our brief-but-dismissive preview. Four minutes from time, Squirrels fans' hopes were shattered by Masaki Yamamoto's freak winner for hosts Shimizu S-Pulse, a rocket of a cross-cum-shot that took keeper Takashi Kitano by surprise to sneak in at the near post. A curious goal to decide a curious game, in which the balance of power shifted during the course of the afternoon from one side to another.

Bearing in mind the contrasting league positions of the two teams the opening half was unexpectedly close, Ardija adopting a positive approach and at least attempting to involve the likes of wide midfielders Tomoya Uchida and Hayato Hashimoto in their attacking play. The closest thing that the opening period came to a goal, however, came at the other end as just before the break S-Pulse suddenly took control of possession and their own midfield player, Akihiro Hyodo, headed straight at Kitano when he really had the space to do better.

There was a feeling at half time that the 0-0 scoreline was due to a combination of the Squirrels working as hard as they could and title challengers Shimizu underperforming mightily, and that sense was emphasised after the re-start, when Ardija began appallingly badly. The home side dominated for at least twenty minutes and it was no surprise when S-Pulse went ahead. The identity of the scorer was hardly a shock, either, Hyodo again finding room among the Omiya defenders to fire an excellent shot inside Kitano's right-hand post from the edge of the area.

After that, Jang Wae Ryong replaced Hashimoto with rookie Jun Kanakubo but there was little improvement to the Squirrels' overall play. Less in evidence was the long-ball tactic that had been so aimlessly unsuccessful against Gamba Osaka, but even so Ardija attacks seemed to progress so far and no further, Yoshihito Fujita proving time and again to be a weak link. The only realistic way back into the match looked to be a set play, corners from the right-hand side most especially causing problems for the home defence.

And in 76th minute, Kanakubo swung in another one from the same flank for first-time Squirrels scorer Shusuke Tsubouchi to bullet a header past home goalkeeper Yohei Nishibe from close range, directly in front of the travelling Omiya support. From that moment on the match changed completely, Ardija taking control of the midfield but frustratingly unable to get a second goal. Kanakubo, for instance, had a couple of shots but could not follow Hyodo's example from earlier in the half and his tame efforts were dealt with easily by Nishibe.

Yamamoto's match winner for S-Pulse may have been mostly a matter of luck, but a lack of quality in the attacking areas of the Omiya team - Fujita's Hiroshi Morita-esque inability to maintain possession when the ball is played forward, the markedly lower standard of the midfielders moving up to join the strikers - means that at least until the return to the starting line-up of the desperately-missed Rafael, Jang's team can only struggle to compete in J1. And that's an observation that we on GGOA have never had to make before, isn't it?

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