Saturday, 7 July 2012

Kashima Preview

Zdenko Verdenik's Omiya Ardija team go to Kashima Antlers tomorrow and, make no mistake about it, in the wider context of the Squirrels' season this is a very important game. There are a couple of reasons why it's a lot more than just a run of the mill fixture. One, it's the first match since the emotional departure from Omiya of Rafael (and, for completeness' sake, the who-was-that-guy-again departure of Kim Young Gwon). Two, it's a crucial measure of the extent to which Verdenik's changes are affecting the team's performance.

Why are these such big deals? Well, I've said on these pages that I don't think Rafael had all that important a part to play in the team. I'm cautiously optimistic that, now he's gone, Verdenik will be able to see what the squad is missing and bring in a new player who can fill the gap. But the Rafael thing is important because so many people believe it is important. He was obviously a popular guy who was really well-liked by the fans and his team-mates. It was clear that he really liked being an Omiya player. Even aside from his on-field abilities, all of that positive energy is now removed from the club and the squad.

So, what impact will those small, "Well, we don't have Rafa now," thoughts have in the dressing room and among the away supporters at Kashima? I think we can and should do better in terms of squad quality, but that's not to say I think that Rafael's leaving after three years in an orange shirt means nothing. Can the Ardija players put all these thoughts to one side and approach a match with confidence? Against the Antlers is our chance to find out the answer to that question.

Then there's the new coach. After seeing his new side get torn apart by a rampant Kashiwa Reysol in his first match, Zdenko Verdenik concentrated on defensive strength and hard work to steal a 0-0 draw at high-scoring Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Then last week at NACK5 Daigo Watanabe grabbed an injury time winner after Verdenik's Squirrels had held Shimizu S-Pulse at bay - and credit should be given here for an excellent performance by keeper Koji Ezumi. Those two games doubled the number of clean sheets that Ardija have kept in the league this season. That's a crucial change if Omiya are to move away from the lower reaches of the J1 table.

Another thing I've said before on these pages is that the defenders that we have in the squad are really not very good - and indeed that on that basis it doesn't matter all that much which combination of players is selected. This point was demonstrated in a modest way by the change between the Hiroshima and Shimizu games from Kim to Yuki Fukaya as partner to Kosuke Kikuchi. This being the case, I think the match at Kashima tomorrow is significant because it will give us an indication as to how far Verdenik's organisational improvements might take us.

The Antlers might have had a poor start to the season and be on rather unpredictable form now, but they have the potential to do some damage to an opponent whose self-belief is fragile. However, three strong Omiya defensive displays in a row starts to look less like a flash in the pan and more like a new reality - something for the players to adopt as a self-image. By 8.30 tomorrow evening, we'll have a better idea of whether the Verdenik-era Ardija might actually be starting to turn a corner. 



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