Saturday, 22 October 2011

Nagoya Preview


"The English motorway system," sang Black Box Recorder on their 2000 album Facts Of Life, "is beautiful and strange." Well, in a funny way maybe it is; the piercing steeple of Hanslope church viewed across fields from the M1 as it cuts through rural Northamptonshire, for example. And it's not the only thing. Saitama Derby matches have a tendency to have a kind of eerie appeal to Squirrels fans at least, in that in recent years they have often followed a similar pattern: Urawa Reds dominate the majority of possession, but Omiya win the game. Last weekend was something of a departure from that norm in that while Ardija still took the points, on balance they were probably the better team. Beautiful. And, being honest, strange.

The twist is that it was in its own way an extraordinary encounter, a relegation match of critical importance to both teams played for much of the ninety minutes with the speed and intensity of a training game. Tentative attacking play was the order of the day, exemplified at one end by Rafael's frequently feeble shooting and by Reds' stunningly poor set plays at the other. While Rafael eventually converted a header from a looping Hayato Hashimoto cross, Urawa's solitary half-chance for Ranko Despotovic was easily blocked by Takashi Kitano. After that, Zeljko Petrovic's men produced nothing. For Omiya this was hardly a break in the bad form of the previous couple of games but against an Urawa team in so much disarray, it didn't need to be - Reds couldn't even score against a central defensive pairing of Yuki Fukaya and Yosuke Kataoka

So while the victory was very welcome, placing Ardija six points above the relegation places with five games remaining - in fact, given the compressed nature of such a large proportion of the J1 table, they're actually the same number of points behind Shimizu S-Pulse in eighth - the strangeness of this beautiful derby win is that it's actually unhelpful to regard it as anything more than the Squirrels being just a little bit less bad than a dreadful team. We're in the bottom five at this stage of the season, again, because we deserve to be. Vissel Kobe, Albirex Niigata and Kawasaki Frontale, for instance, mightn't be much good but they're better than we are. 

Another superior team is Saturday's opponent high-flying Nagoya Grampus - and of all the fixtures it's hard to imagine Omiya winning, this is just about the hardest. The mobility of Keiji Tamada, the goal threat of Josh Kennedy and Grampus' impressive midfield supporting cast, coupled with Dragan Stojkovic's absolute determination to push his team to a second successive J-League title, means that this one has away win written all over it. Keigo Higashi looks set to return to the Ardija starting line-up and the engine room of the Kota Ueda and Takuya Aoki needs to put in an especially strong performance to counter the palpable weaknesses in other areas of the side. A home victory? Well, now that really would be gorgeous to behold. And frankly bizarre.

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