Saturday, 17 March 2012

Niigata Preview

Omiya and Albirex Niigata both go into Saturday's game at Big Swan having lost 1-0 in their opening J1 fixtures of 2012, which I guess must make the match an early-season relegation six-pointer. Only joking! Let's look forward by looking back at the Squirrels' encounter with FC Tokyo, good and bad stuff.

To get this out of the way first, I think it's pretty pointless to talk about refereeing errors. There may have been mistakes made by the officials, but the same can be said of the players, coaches, commentators, TV producers and everyone who played any kind of part in the match as a sporting and televisual spectacle. That's life. Sometimes it might be annoying, but the reason Ardija lost is nothing to do with the referee and everything to do with the following two facts:

1. that Lucas had a single moment of brilliance no-one could do anything about
2. that Omiya didn't do enough to get past an outstanding keeper in Shuichi Gonda

Those were what won and lost the points. In general we did OK. During the course of the year we'll no doubt play worse while getting a better result. Takashi Kitano was fine in goal and had no chance for Lucas' shot, the defence rode its luck at times but were generally solid. Carlinhos had a promising debut, busy across the whole of the midfield and almost never losing possession, Keigo Higashi and Cho Young Cheol were mobile, quick and reasonably dangerous.

There wasn't much to choose between the teams and the balance shifted during the ninety minutes, Omiya looking slightly more threatening for most of the first half before the visitors took the upper hand just ahead of the break. The other notable change was after the goal, when Ardija's confidence and effectiveness seemed to fade. It was absolutely clear that replacing Cho with Hayato Hashimoto was never going to give the Squirrels a boost as they chased the game - and yes, I know that Hashimoto tapped in the disallowed goal - and an unfit-looking Rafael managed to contribute even less than he had in the first half, when his big moment was to trot into the penalty area just in time to skew a clear chance into the side netting with Gonda floundering.

In fact Rafael as the main striker in a 4-5-1 formation emerged as the biggest question mark. He's never looked like a player to lead the line - skilful he may be, but like Lee Chun Soo last year Rafa is inconsistent as a chance-taker. Neither is he very fast, when a simple burst of speed would have enabled a lesser player to score the above-mentioned opportunity and put Omiya ahead. Yu Hasegawa might not be nearly as good a footballer and it's only fair to repeat the point about Rafael's lack of fitness against Tokyo, but at least the purpose of Hasegawa is undeniably to play as the big guy up front. Just by virtue of his strength he'll give defenders a tough time. Rafa never did that last weekend.

Still, heading into the Albirex game we have something to build on. Hopefully Kitano and Cho will want to shine against their old side and Higashi will turn it on after the midweek thrill of achieving qualification for the Olympics with the U23s. I'd just feel better if there was a clearer idea where the goals are going to come from.

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