Saturday, 4 August 2012

Gamba Preview

All in all another extraordinary week to report on at Omiya Ardija, ahead of what is shaping up to be a crucial match on Saturday evening at Gamba Osaka. It's an encounter which, while very important to both teams' hopes of staying in J1, is also very difficult to predict. Approaching the business end of a disastrous season Gamba are running out of time if they are to battle their way out of the relegation places, but have re-signed a proven J-League goalscorer in Leandro.

Meanwhile Omiya's form is up one moment and down the next, as exemplified by last weekend's thrashing at Kawasaki Frontale. And in Zlatan Ljubijankic and Milivoje Novakovic the Squirrels have signed forwards of their own, as they seek to secure their place in the top division for another season. But Ljubijankic went off after a mysteriously brief 20-minute cameo in a training match on Sunday and his fitness ahead of the trip to Osaka is unclear.

Newcomer Novakovic had his first training session as an Omiya player on Friday. A veteran of 33, his scoring record at both club and international level is better than of his fellow Slovenian Ljubijankic, alongside whom he has played for the national team: Novakovic boasts a resume that includes nineteen goals for Slovenia more than seventy for 1FC Koln in Germany. Impressive enough, and stats that suggest he could be a very dangerous weapon in the J-League, but Ardija fans will likely have to wait before it becomes apparent how Zdenko Verdenik plans to deploy his new assets.

They may choose to spend some of that time pondering the fragility of the Squirrels' defence - demonstrated with terrifying clarity during the second half at Frontale - and the fact that Verdenik has not yet done anything to strengthen this part of the squad. Indeed, given that Kim Young Gwon has left and not been replaced, there are now fewer options than earlier in the year. At times under their new coach Omiya have looked strong and resolute defensively, but on other occasions the discipline of the back four has disappeared completely.

No combination of players seems to convince on a consistent basis: Kosuke Kikuchi might usually be the lynchpin and decision-maker, but when such a key member of the team is so prone to lapses in concentration that expose his colleagues, it is hard to have confidence in Ardija's rearguard. It is also worth noting that the one defender Omiya have been linked with in the transfer market, Mito Hollyhock starlet Tsukasa Shiotani, this week joined Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Are we really stuck with what we've got? Is what we've got really good enough to survive another Ardija relegation scrap? The Gamba match counts as a must-not-lose fixture, as a victory for the Blue and Blacks will close the gap between the teams to three points. Can the Squirrels defence keep out a fired up and desperate Leandro, Yasuhito Endo and co? Has Zlatan Ljubijankic succumbed to injury almost before his Omiya career has started? All in all, Ardija once again go into a key game with more unanswered questions hanging over their heads.



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