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Novakovic relishing surprise title challenge with Ardija

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Few preseason predictions would have tipped Omiya Ardija to lead the J. League at the start of July, but as play resumes Saturday after a six-week international break, striker Milivoje Novakovic is happy to keep confounding expectations.

Omiya heads into its game against Sagan Tosu in uncharted territory five points clear at the top of the table, continuing a remarkable campaign that has also seen the unfashionable Saitama club set a new J. League record for consecutive unbeaten games that finally came to an end at 21.

Ardija have never finished in the top half of the table let alone challenged for the title in eight previous seasons in the first division, but after 1½ months kicking their heels waiting for the J. League to emerge from cold storage, Novakovic is unsure how his team will respond when Tosu visits Nack5 Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s very difficult to say what effect the break will have, because we won’t know until we play,” the Slovenian said at Omiya’s training ground earlier this week. “The first game back is very important, but we won’t know until we’ve played three or four games. There’s no reason why it should be a problem, but it’s hard to say.

“For sure the game against Tosu will be tough. They are very strong at set pieces and put a lot of pressure on you, so we’ll have to be careful. It’s an important game but we’re top of the table and we’re at home, so we have to be confident in ourselves.”

Novakovic initially joined Omiya on a half-season loan from German side Cologne last summer, but after helping the club stave off relegation, the 34-year-old had no hesitation in signing up for another 12 months. The 190-cm striker has hit seven goals so far this season to help Ardija claim 10 wins and two draws from 13 games, but even the player himself has been surprised by the scale of the team’s achievements.

“I didn’t think we would be top — probably more around the middle of the table,” said Novakovic. “Last year we were involved in a relegation battle, so our target this time was to avoid the same thing happening and challenge the teams at the top. We have been working well every day in training since last year, and all that has built up to get us into the position we are in now.

“The results we have been getting are down to the good work done by everyone from the manager, the coaching staff and the players to the chefs who cook our food. Omiya Ardija are growing as a club all the time, and it’s great to be a part of it.”

Novakovic’s smooth transition has been helped by the presence of two of his countrymen at Ardija, with Slovenian international strike partner Zlatan Ljubijankic alongside him and manager Zdenko Verdenik on the bench. Verdenik is no stranger to the J. League, having first arrived in 2000, and the 64-year-old knows players of Novakovic’s caliber do not come along every day.

“Novakovic is a player with a lot of experience,” said Verdenik. “He has played in important games in the Bundesliga, and he’s very dangerous in front of goal. He’s interested in scoring goals, but he’s not an egoist who always wants to score. He knows when other players are in a better position, and he gives them the ball.

“He has scored many goals from very simple situations — he only needs a small space to score a goal. He isn’t so strong with his head but he is very strong with his feet. He has a very good instinct for scoring goals, and this is one of his best qualities.”

Novakovic admits Verdenik was an influential factor in his decision to move to the J. League, but the lure of the unknown also had its appeal.

“Before I came here I talked to people who had played in Japan,” said Novakovic, who scored 82 goals in 176 appearances for Cologne. “The manager being from my country was one reason for coming, but I also wanted to take on the challenge of experiencing a new culture and a new environment. I came here knowing that the team was fighting against relegation, and that was a big mission for me. I gave everything to help us escape, and we achieved it.”

Novakovic retired from the Slovenian national team several months before joining Omiya, but a change of manager in January this year prompted a rethink from the player. Ardija’s title challenge may yet suffer with Ljubijankic also making regular long flights back to Europe, but Novakovic insists the sacrifice is worth it.

“It wasn’t my intention to retire from the national team, but there were various reasons which I don’t really want to go into,” said Novakovic, who has won 57 caps and scored 21 goals for his country. “Then a new manager took over and asked me to come back and make a contribution by guiding the younger players, so I did that and I’ve been able to play my part.

“Of course you get jet-lagged and it’s not easy, but how you deal with it depends on how strong you are mentally. I’m confident I have the mental strength to cope. It won’t be easy, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome. I want to give everything I have on the pitch.”