Saturday, 19 February 2011

Hi Everybody, We're Back

I guess it's time to come out of hibernation. So what's been happening while we've been taking a bit of a nap?

Well, Omiya coach Jun Suzuki and his 2011 first team squad have been busy on their two pre-season training camps, first on the Pacific island of Guam and more recently in Miyazaki in the far south-west of Japan. Despite brief rumours in the press that Japan international winger Daisuke Matsui was an Ardija target there have been no further signings since the arrival at the club of midfielder Kota Ueda from Jubilo Iwata. And if we assume that Ueda's signing is indeed the last of the close season, this means that the Squirrels are heading into the 2011 campaign with a slightly smaller squad than last year: you could argue about equivalence all day long, but in crude terms reserve goalkeeper Daisuke Tada and forward Masahiko Ichikawa are the players who haven't been replaced.

So it's been quiet on the transfer front and there's also been a peculiar lack of activity as far as friendly matches is concerned. Usually the Guam camp can be relied upon for at least three training games against Japanese, Korean or local opposition, but this year there was just a single encounter with Consadole Sapporo that ended in a 4-1 Ardija win. Some clubs such as Gamba Osaka abandoned plans to go to Miyazaki due to the eruption of a volcano nearby, but Omiya went down to Kyushu and played friendlies against Miyazaki Sangyo Keiei University (4-0), Fukuoka University (12-0) and finally J2 side Fagiano Okayama (4-1). Impressive enough scorelines, perhaps, although it's rather mystifying that the Squirrels will only on Sunday play their first preparatory match against J1 opposition.

This comes in the shape of the so-called Saitama City Cup, which this year is appropriately enough a derby against local rivals Urawa Reds. And predicting a line-up for the game is tough, in part because the teams for both the Fukuoka University and Fagiano Okayama games haven't been fully released and in part because it is difficult to guess how or whether Suzuki will use any of the new signings, such as Ueda, Kim Yong Gwon, Daigo Watanabe and Keigo Higashi. The Saitama Shimbun newspaper has reported that Suzuki has been experimenting with a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is music to the ears of at least one supporter (me, in case that wasn't clear), but trifling details such as who might have been selected in each position are frustratingly absent.

Of the new players, only Ueda's likely role in central midfield seems to be clear and so with that important qualification in mind - and discarding all of the other winter signings - here is a view of the Omiya team that I'd like to see play against Urawa on Sunday and at Kashima Antlers in the season opener on Sunday 06 March.

---------------------- Ishihara --------------------

---- Kanakubo --------- Rafael -------------- Lee ---

---------------- Ueda ----------- Kanazawa ---------

Suzuki ------ Tsubouchi --------- Fukaya ----- Watabe

----------------------- Kitano ---------------------

Starting at the top, Naoki Ishihara is without doubt the best goalscorer at the club and so therefore it makes sense to utilise him as close to the goal as possible - especially bearing in mind his abilities as a close-range finisher, demonstrated to such devastating effect in matches such as the crucial draw with Vissel Kobe at the end of last season. Ishihara has a decent understanding with Rafael and it also makes sense to use the cheery Brazilian in the middle rather than on the wings, where the speed and skill of Lee Chun Soo in particular can cause trouble for most defences. On the left, Jun Kanakubo had a good rookie season in 2010 and has earned his place ahead of existing alternatives such as the perpetually underachieving Hayato Hashimoto and Chikara Fujimoto.

Ardija have always lacked a strong presence in central midfield and it is to be hoped that Kota Ueda will finally be the player to provide it - and because Takuya Aoki's continuing presence in the Japan U22 set-up his Squirrels career has yet to take off properly, it could be Aoki who makes way for Ueda alongside old favourite Shin Kanazawa. A first-choice defence is probably less clear-cut, as Yuki Fukaya didn't shine as much as expected in 2010 after his move from Oita Trinita, although Shusuke Tsubouchi was one of the unexpected stars of the side. Daisuke Watabe partnered with Lee on the right could be a mouthwatering prospect if one of them remembers to defend from time to time and Norio Suzuki is a solid if unspectacular choice on the left ahead of Kazuhiro Murakami. Goalkeeper Takashi Kitano won the GGOA Player of the Year last year: enough said.

Do Omiya have a better squad now than was the case twelve months ago? More this year than has been the case in any recent pre-season, it's very difficult to say until the league action actually starts. Defender Kim and midfielder Higashi are two of the most important new players, but they're both very young and Kim spent 2010 with a team that got relegated, while Higashi was in the bottom half of J2. It would be asking a lot to expect them to slot into a new side at Omiya and to bring about the sort of improvements that will enable Ardija to achieve this year's target of fifty points. But we're optimistic, of course. And another win over the Reds on Sunday would only whet the appetite for Ardija's seventh J1 season even more.

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