SAITAMA – Escaping relegation would be the only thing on the mind of most teams sitting one place above the drop zone with just eight matches left to play, but Omiya Ardija midfielder Keigo Higashi has grander ambitions for his struggling side than mere survival.
Omiya heads into Saturday’s game against Yokohama F. Marinos 15th in the J. League first-division table, two points above Gamba Osaka and four ahead of Albirex Niigata in the race to avoid joining relegation near-certainties Consadole Sapporo in J2 next season.
The story is a familiar one for Ardija, having found progress hard to come by since debuting in the top flight in 2005. The team’s chances of a first-ever top-half finish this year looked more remote than ever during an August spent mostly in the bottom three, but now after two straight wins in a division so tight that only 12 points separate the Saitama side from fourth-place Jubilo Iwata, Higashi is thinking big.
“We’ve been training well and there is a good atmosphere in the team,” the 22-year-old said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “We play Marinos on Saturday, and if we can win that game then the atmosphere will be even better.
“We still have eight games left to play, and I think we are capable of moving further up the table. This club has been involved in relegation battles in the past, but we have to put that behind us now. If we can do that and work hard in training, we can move in the right direction. I believe we can do it.”
Omiya’s cause has certainly been helped by a mid-season recruitment drive from Slovenia, with manager Zdenko Verdenik replacing Jun Suzuki and World Cup strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic arriving to reinforce the attack.
Novakovic proved his quality with a hat trick in last Saturday’s 5-0 demolition of Consadole, and Higashi is excited about the team’s prospects.
“Novakovic and Ljubijankic are both players with a huge amount of potential, and I think they can have a big influence on our team,” he said. “Verdenik is a very passionate manager who likes a passing style of football. We were able to play some good stuff against Sapporo and show what we could do, and he’s made us a much more penetrative team.
“Things haven’t changed so much since the previous manager left, but Japanese managers and foreign managers have different ways of doing things. At first we weren’t able to get the results we were looking for and it took some time, but now everyone understands the kind of football he wants us to play. We have improved a lot.”
If Higashi was unable to get to grips with his new manager’s methods earlier, however, his commitments elsewhere this summer gave him a valid excuse. The midfielder started all but one of Japan’s six games at the London Olympics, wearing his country’s No. 10 shirt and setting the tone with his hard running as the team narrowly failed to lay its hands on a first medal since 1968.
“It was a great experience for me, and hopefully one that I can use for Omiya in the J. League,” Higashi said of Japan’s Olympic campaign. “Wearing the No. 10 was a big responsibility, but it was one that I was happy to take on.
“We weren’t able to win a medal, but we fought together as a team and there was a great atmosphere in the squad. As a football player that was something that gave me a lot of pleasure.”
Going home empty-handed was a bitter disappointment after reaching the last four on the strength of memorable wins over Spain, Morocco and Egypt, but Higashi accepts that the team fell short when the going got tough against Mexico in the semifinals and South Korea in the bronze-medal match.
“I think the difference between winning a medal and not winning a medal was in the physical and mental aspects of our game,” he said. “When we got to the final stages and it really got down to business, I could feel the difference between us and the other teams.”
Now the onus is on Higashi to step up to the full national side, and with Olympic teammates Hiroshi Kiyotake, Hiroki Sakai and Gotoku Sakai having all appeared for Alberto Zaccheroni’s team, the example has been set.
Higashi also intends to follow that trio in moving to a European club at some point in the future, but for the time being he has his hands full at Ardija.
“I want to play on the big stage and show what I can do as well,” he said. “But first I have to make my mark at Omiya and work hard to be called up to the national team.
“We still have eight games left this season, and I want to make a contribution and help the team win.”