Saturday, 5 March 2011

Kashima Preview

Three months it's been since the last GGOA Match Preview text, but on Sunday the close season comes to an end and Ardija start their seventh J1 campaign at Kashima Antlers. It's been a curious winter in some ways for Omiya, Squirrels hero Mato Neretljak departing for South Korea on something of a low note after a quiet 2010, and no grandstand arrivals to grab the headlines or highlight the scale of Ardija's ambitions. But maybe that isn't the way of 2011-vintage Omiya under the presidency of Shigeru Suzuki, who has refreshed with his apparently sincere keenness to engage with supporters and also has impressed with the calibre of his decision-making: sensible targets have been set, Jun Suzuki has stayed in charge as coach and the transfer policy has in the main concentrated on bringing good young players to the club.

Pre-season preparation has meant familiar trips to both Guam and Miyazaki for training camps but just a handful of practice matches, the quality of opposition only being increased in the last couple of weeks when Omiya have played Urawa Reds and a behind-closed-doors game against Kawasaki Frontale. Coach Suzuki's aim seems to have been a smooth shift away from a traditional Ardija 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 formation, with speedy South Korean Lee Chun Soo as the main striker and new signings Kota Ueda and Kim Yong Gwon in the defensive midfield and centre back roles respectively. The change in style looks a positive development even if the team selection isn't to everyone's liking, but the likes of young winger Keigo Higashi and goal poacher supreme Naoki Ishihara will surely get their chances along the way.

The early part of the new season is pretty tough going, though, with the trip to Kashima followed by matches against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and 2010 runners-up Gamba Osaka - tricky tests for Ueda as he beds himself in at the heart of a new team and for Kim, too, forming a new partnership in the middle of the back four with Shusuke Tsubouchi. A solid defensive display at Kashima is therefore an obvious immediate target, even if the Antlers' veteran goal machine Marquinhos has moved on to a fresh challenge at Vegalta Sendai. But where Ardija fans have always been looking for serious improvement is in the attacking half of the team and although the dead weight of Chikara Fujimoto would still seem to hang over the squad, Omiya did well to hold on to key forward Rafael and just might turn out to have a star in the making in Daisuke Watabe.

Just to see those players functioning effectively and creating chances against Kashima will be encouraging, although in order for that to happen the pressure is intense on Ueda and his young sidekick Takuya Aoki to provide stability and simple possession of the ball. On paper, however, this looks as if it has the potential to be a better balanced Ardija team than in previous seasons. The formation suits the players at Suzuki's disposal and at last there seems to be a way of addressing the problem that has dogged the Squirrels ever since they gained promotion to the top division at the end of 2004: a consistent inability to create a good number of goalscoring chances. Things couldn't be much more difficult than a start at the Antlers, but under Jun Suzuki there's a sense that Omiya as a club and team finally are moving in the right direction.

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