The Squirrels on record unbeaten run
9 May ~ Japan's J-League may be enjoyed by aficionados as an open and unpredictable competition, but few could have imagined which team would be heading the J1 table almost a third of the way into the 2013 season. As one of the smallest clubs in the Japanese top division, Omiya Ardija have never finished in the top half of the table since gaining promotion in 2004. But they currently lie in first place, six points clear of Yokohama F Marinos in second. The club is based in the city of Omiya in Saitama Prefecture, just to the north of Tokyo.
They take their name from a corruption of the Spanish word ardilla, meaning squirrel, a common local symbol. Being based just a few kilometres from Urawa Reds, the most popular club in Japan, has undoubtedly made the development of Ardija more difficult, as they struggle to fill their 15,000-capacity stadium.
If this season is taking Omiya into new territory, 2012 began in more familiar fashion – just ahead of the campaign mid-point coach Jun Suzuki was sacked with the team a single place above the relegation zone. The main response to the appointment of Suzuki’s successor was bewilderment: 63-year-old Zdenko Verdenik had some experience of coaching in Japan but his most recent post was a technical role at the FA in his native Slovenia.
Verdenik quickly brought in two Slovenian forwards, Zlatan Ljubijankic from Gent and the veteran Milivoje Novakovic from Cologne, but progress was slow – the new pair didn't seem fit and were finding it hard to gel with their team-mates. After three months in charge, Verdenik’s team were second bottom in the table with relegation beckoning.
The first hint of change came in a draw against Urawa Reds. Then, Consadole Sapporo were overwhelmed 5-0, Novakovic becoming the first ever Ardija player to score a J1 hat-trick. At reigning champions Kashiwa Reysol, to the astonishment of fans and media alike, Omiya ran riot, Ljubijankic firing a hat-trick of his own as Verdenik’s team crushed Reysol 4-1.
Games that would previously have ended in defeat became hard-fought draws and draws turned miraculously to wins as Omiya put together a run of good form. The defence was organised and committed, there was energy and movement in the midfield and the Slovenian duo provided both attacking focus and a willingness to work hard when Ardija didn't have the ball. The threat of relegation receded as Omiya closed out the campaign with an 11-game unbeaten stretch.
With a basically unchanged squad Verdenik has started the 2013 season where he left off. At the end of April Ljubijankic poked in the winner against Urawa which enabled Omiya to break the record for the longest J1 unbeaten run; after Monday’s 2-1 defeat of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, that run stands at 21 and counting. Anyone who saw them play a year ago will hardly be able to believe it but the habitual relegation contenders are now being talked of as possible title winners.
The press have focused on the Slovenian connection as key to Omiya’s transformation but this is to downplay contributions by Japanese players throughout the team. Takuya Aoki has metamorphosed into a dynamic box-to-box midfielder, young striker Takamitsu Tomiyama has displayed speed, courage and a venomous left foot, while new discovery Tomoki Imai at right-back adds solidity and an eye for the overlapping run. The question is, how long can Verdenik and Omiya keep going? Mike Innes