Saturday, 30 June 2012

S-Pulse Preview

Pretty quiet week for Omiya, yes? Well OK, maybe not. During that time we've had the first glimpse of Zdenko Verdenik's way ahead via the draw at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, an astonishing 4-3 Nabisco Cup loss to Albirex Niigata with an experimental line-up that included two full debuts, and strong indications that foreign stars Rafael and Kim Young Gwon are both set to leave the club - news stories that have been greeted with shock and disbelief by many Squirrels fans. Lots to get our teeth into, then, ahead of Saturday's J1 match with Shimizu S-Pulse at NACK5.

The Hiroshima game was curiously similar to some of the Greek performances in Euro2012, with Omiya simply hanging on against a dominant attacking team. But hang on they did. Ardija offered virtually nothing as an attacking threat, but on the other hand they worked incessantly on the defensive side of their game. That combined with something of an off-day by Sanfrecce forwards Hisato Sato and Naoki Ishihara eventually led to Omiya picking up a very hard-earned 0-0 draw. 

Would this Ardija team ever have scored a goal of their own? Probably not - Daisuke Watabe came closest to finding the net and as long-term Squirrels watchers will know he has the air of a young man destined never to score throughout the whole of his pro career. Would a Jun Suzuki team have avoided defeat? Also, probably not: Verdenik's predecessor was never able to coax such concentrated work from his players. Was it pretty? Well, definitely not, but it was a start - and it was the sort of gutsy, organised performance that a team wanting to avoid relegation needs to produce.

And a gutsy organised performance was definitely not what was on display from Omiya at Albirex Niigata in midweek. Already eliminated from the Nabisco Cup, the last fixture in the group stage of the tournament gave Zdenko Verdenik the chance to experiment with some of the more remote areas of his squad. The new coach gave full debuts to goalkeeper Keiki Shimizu - a first ever appearance in the Ardija team, after having been a squad member since... 2008 - and young striker Shintaro Shimizu, who previously had under his belt only a handful of minutes as a substitute. It is fair to say that both players will remember the evening.

Shintaro might have tired badly towards the end of the game but by that time his contribution had been well and truly made, scoring with a neat shot from outside the area in the fifteenth minute and then again from close range early in the second half. Sandwiched in between those goals was a rare score from Daigo Watanabe, meaning that Omiya were miraculously 3-0 up with less than 50 minutes played.

After that Kim Young Gwon came off the bench and while it would be unfair to blame the young Korean for what followed, it was from there vertiginously downhill. Omiya's defence underwent a total collapse and there was a strange predictability to the final moments of the match, when Musashi Suzuki first equalised and then scrambled in a fourth goal for the Swans. It was hard not to feel sorry for Keiki Shimizu, who must have come off the field wondering if he had played his first and last match.

Meanwhile his more experienced team-mates Kim and Rafael certainly do seem to have pulled on an orange shirt for the last time. Kim has reportedly already left Japan to sign for a C-League club, while Rafael is widely expected to join former Kashima Antlers coach Oswaldo de Oliveira at Botafogo. These are major players in the Squirrels squad - Kim has just been confirmed in the South Korean Olympic squad and Rafael was last season's top scorer - and the likely departure of the tall Brazilian in particular has provoked an emotional response from Omiya supporters. He is a hero to many members of the Squirrel Nation, especially for a string of match-winning displays against Urawa Reds.

So, do these moves represent courageous, clear-thinking management on the part of Verdenik, or are they more examples of hopelessly misguided decision-making, Ardija-style? I'll restrict my remarks to the footballing and necessarily leave out the financial, as so many aspects of the money side of things are unknown, but I will say this: I think it's good that Rafael and Kim Young Gwon look set to be leaving Omiya Ardija.

He might be on the way out, but Rafael can consider himself unlucky in the way that he has been treated. Being honest, he's a poor chance-taker. It's not his fault that Jun Suzuki felt him to be the main goalscorer at the club when, in spite of the player's ability turn it on for the Saitama Derby, all the evidence says that his skills lie in other areas. Suzuki pushed him into leading the line in a 4-5-1 when a deeper-lying role would be far more appropriate. The departure of Rafael will free up a place in the squad for Verdenik to bring in a new striker who can better complement the other available players and has a better scoring record. 

Kim Young Gwon arrived with a reputation as a promising youngster capable of playing as a central defender or left back. Occasionally he's been a danger from set pieces and Kim also has an eye for a long pass upfield, but when it comes to his main responsibilities he just hasn't been able to fit in. It's sad to say it but Kim stands out in the Omiya defence as an unreliable figure - and the general standard of players in this part of the team is really not great. Jun Suzuki never found his preferred back four and one reason for this must be that Kim has been a disappointment at Ardija: Verdenik's next job will be to strengthen his squad with a more consistent, first choice replacement.

So Saturday's game against S-Pulse will perhaps see a continuation of the new coach's stop-gap Squirrels that performed a smash-and-grab in Hiroshima. Some will be hoping that Shintaro Shimizu gets a chance after shining in midweek, because elsewhere in the squad there is no-one who can be described as a dangerous goalscorer. Another tightly defensive approach looks to be on the cards, then, as Zdenko Verdenik continues to bring about the changes he hopes will lead to Omiya's J1 survival. 



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