Friday, 17 December 2010

TENTH IN '10!!: #3. The November Turnaround

It's pretty much a tradition by now and it's the thing that pretty much guarantees Omiya's survival as a concern in J1: the Good Ship Squirrel hits stormy weather around September and October time, and for a while it looks as though we're in really serious trouble. But a run of form from somewhere between the end of October and the end of the year somehow makes everything OK again, top division status is saved and the fans come out of the season complaining only about lack of progress rather than actual relegation. It happens over and over, look:

2005: four wins in a row from late October, coming off the back of seven straight defeats
2006: victories in each of the last three matches, having won only one of the previous twelve
2007: a sudden burst of eleven points from the final six games, including a dreadful but vital goalless draw at Ventforet Kofu and the drama of Leandro's run-from-his-own-penalty-area winning goal at FC Tokyo
2008: six losses in a row throughout September and October, then five games undefeated to see out the season
2009: one defeat in the last five matches, which included a sensational Rafael- inspired 3-0 win over Urawa Reds

The 2010 version came in the midst of a fight between Omiya, FC Tokyo and Vissel Kobe to avoid sixteenth place, off the back of heavy defeats to Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers, plus the humiliation of a rare loss to Urawa. All this combined with the untimely postponement of a crucial match at Shonan Bellmare meant that Ardija were facing a November that included the rescheduled Shonan fixture, three vital games against other relegation rivals in Kobe, Montedio Yamagata and Kyoto Sanga, a trip to champions-elect Nagoya Grampus, a home match with Albirex Niigata and an Emperor's Cup tie against Avispa Fukuoka.

In other words, the pressure was on in a series of six-pointers and the calendar could barely have been more congested. It was Yamagata who came first. The game was heading for a 1-1 draw after a bad Omiya first-half, but Naoki Ishihara bundled in from close range just seconds after coming on as a substitute and the Squirrels held on for the win. Very handy indeed, but it would have meant nothing without a victory in midweek at J2-bound Shonan in the rearranged match. Luckily, Bellmare showed little inclination for a late rally in what was for them a quite calamitous year and once Jun Kanakubo had put Ardija ahead with an early free kick the result was never in much doubt.

Even so, upturns in form for both Tokyo and Vissel meant that the bigger picture was more or less unchanged: Kobe remained in the drop zone, but Omiya and Tokyo were only a handful of points ahead. Another disastrous first half at Nagoya saw Omiya trailing 2-1 and a man down after Lee Ho was yellow carded twice in six minutes, and not surprisingly the Squirrels couldn't recover against a team heading for its first J1 title. Meanwhile a late Sota Hirayama goal enabled FC Tokyo to beat Yokohama F Marinos and handed them a major advantage in the race to avoid the drop.

Ardija coach Jun Suzuki then kept his eye firmly on J1 survival when in the midweek Emperor's Cup match against Fukuoka he fielded a reserve line-up that included players who had barely had a sniff of first-team action in 2010, such as Tomoya Uchida, Yoshihito Fujita and rookie Taisuke Miyazaki. Omiya were eliminated on penalties after a 2-2 draw but the calendar rolled on and attention immediately shifted to a winnable weekend match at lowly Kyoto. Yuki Fukaya's early header settled any Squirrels nerves and as at Shonan, it turned out to be a comfortable enough encounter against a poor Sanga side.

The big game, however, was at home to the now-competitive Vissel, who were kicking themselves after playing well but only managing a draw with Kashima. Avoid defeat and Omiya were more or less safe; lose and it would without question go to the wire. A mix-up in the Ardija defence between Mato Neretljak and Takashi Kitano gifted Kobe a fourteenth-minute lead but in a rousing game it was Neretljak who made amends by bundling in a corner early in the second half.

The match on a knife-edge, visitors Vissel retook the lead with only thirteen minutes remaining when Fukaya could only deflect a cross into his own net. Heading for defeat, the Squirrels pressed forward and just five minutes from time some superb combination play on the left saw Lee Chun Soo release Kazuhiro Murakami to fire in a low ball that was converted by super-sub Ishihara. The game ended 2-2 and Omiya needed a single point from the last two matches to make 100% certain of J1 football in 2011.

That point was duly achieved four days later in another 2-2 draw, youngster Daisuke Watabe emerging as the star man with superb assists for both Rafael and Yuki Fukaya against Niigata. This was a confident Squirrels side, with an uncharacteristic range of attacking outlets in Watabe as a winger, Chun Soo, Rafael and Ishihara, and the last game of the year was won as Omiya went to Yokohama and beat the Sailors 2-0. When they really need to, then, contrary to popular opinion Ardija can actually do it. Why it doesn't happen more often is now Jun Suzuki's conundrum to solve for next season.



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