29
Apr
16

Gamba lacking home comforts

Gamba Osaka were nigh-on unbeatable at home last season, but since moving to their new stadium they have won just once as they struggle to adapt to  their new surroundings… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 29th April, 2016

What on earth is going on in Suita?

Gamba Osaka’s long-awaited move to their new stadium was supposed to herald the next step in the club’s development, but since moving three-quarters of a mile down the road from the crumbling Banpaku Stadium to the shiny new Suita City Stadium the team has been unrecognizable.

Last year Gamba only lost once at home in the league – when eventual champions Sanfrecce beat them 2-0 at Banpaku in November – but this season they’ve only tasted victory once at their new digs, losing five of their opening seven games in Suita, including each of the last four.

That run sees them marooned in mid-table in the league – seven points adrift of first stage leaders Urawa Reds – and already eliminated from the Champions League, a competition that they made it to the semi-finals of last year and which they were desperate to win this time around.

“We’re not winning at home which means we can’t pick up any momentum,” coach Kenta Hasegawa said after the recent 1-0 loss at home to Kashiwa Reysol. “We’re creating chances but aren’t able to convert them.”

Hasegawa then went on to reveal the extent of the efforts being made to address Gamba’s poor run of form, with even the tiniest of alterations being taken into account.

“Today we cut the grass a little shorter and also halved the amount of time we had the sprinklers on the pitch, as the players had spoken about it being slippery,” he said.

“We’re trying all sorts of things to overcome the situation. Of course the players want to win in front of the fans at this fantastic stadium, but I don’t know what the problem is. At the moment the feeling being put into the games and the results aren‘t matching up.

“Only we can change that, and now we’ll work hard to refresh our bodies and minds in order to pick up a win in the next game against Suwon.”

Whatever they did in the intervening five days didn’t work, however, and the Suwon match ended in yet another defeat, and thus elimination from the competition.

The Reysol and Suwon games both followed a similar pattern, with Gamba having plenty of possession but not threatening to do much with it. The connections going forward are a particular cause for concern, with Takashi Usami, Shun Nagasawa, and Ademilson rarely on the same wavelength, and there is an overriding sense of the team just not feeling at home in their new home.

Suita Stadium, Friday 15th April, 2016

While the arena is undoubtedly impressive it lacks a little identity at the moment, and there is a feeling of it being almost like a neutral venue with visiting players and fans equally as impressed with and motivated by the stadium as those of the home side.

Teams are supposed to have the edge on their own turf and be able to take advantage of the aspects familiar to them, but the Gamba players are clearly still unfamiliar with their surroundings, both on and off the pitch.

Ahead of the 2-1 win over Omiya Ardija back in March, for instance – the club’s only victory in Suita so far – Keisuke Iwashita and Daiki Niwa were two of the players not in the squad that day to be seen lost in the bowels of the stadium trying to work out where they were supposed to watch the match from, while those who were involved in the game had to be given step by step instructions on how to get to and pass through the mixed zone post-match.

It is the issues on the pitch which provide the biggest concern, though, and it would appear that the side is struggling to adapt to the confines of the football-specific venue – which at the closest point sees the stands just seven metres away from the action.

It may just be coincidence, but their poor form from the penalty spot adds some weight to this theory, with Usami seeing both his initial kick and re-taken effort saved against Suwon and, more surprisingly, the ever-reliable Yasuhito Endo also failing to convert from 12 yards in injury time of the 2-1 reverse at the hands of Yokohama F.Marinos on April 2nd.

In both of those games opposing players were able to find the net from set-pieces – with Shunsuke Nakamura arcing home that free-kick for Marinos, and Santos coolly slotting home Suwon’s penalty – suggesting that the issue is a psychological one affecting the hosts at the moment.

Added to that, it would be difficult to suggest that the team is simply not as good this year, with Gamba picking up nine points from 12 on the road so far, including another hard-fought win in Fukuoka against Avispa on Sunday.

They’ll be hoping to build on that away form by overcoming their home hex sooner rather than later – although the wait may have to go on a little longer yet, with high-flying Frontale and Yoshito Okubo the next visitors in town.

18
Apr
16

Urawa ready for glory

Urawa Reds could progress to the knockout stages of the ACL with a game to spare on Wednesday,  and their recent win over Guangzhou Evergrande – and in particular the manner of it – suggests they’ll be one of the teams to reckon with once there…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 18th April, 2016

Mihailo Petrovic had spent the bulk of the game crutching himself about his technical area frantically conveying instructions and encouragement to his players, but at full time the pain disappeared and the sticks flew in the air.

The Urawa Reds manager knew this win, and the manner of it, was huge for his club – perhaps even the biggest since he took over at the start of the 2012 season.

Not only had the hosts beaten Guangzhou Evergrande – the reigning Asian Champions – 1-0 to all-but secure a place in the knockout round of the ACL; not only had they all-but knocked Guangzhou out of the competition in the process; but they had done it with confidence, aggression, and passion.

“I have been in Japan for 10 years and seen many games but it is very rare to see such a good game,” the Serbian enthused after the match.

“The very important thing is that we proved that money cannot buy a win. Guangzhou has great foreign players but we were still able to play hard and beat them. I have a very bad back right now but today I was able to forget that – that’s how much I was able to get into the game.”

Match-winner Yuki Muto spoke afterwards of how Petrovic had demanded that his players treat the game like a final – a cliché, sure, but one which the players seemed to have taken on board, and which, in truth, it sort of was. Knock out the best team in the continent and who is there left to fear?

“We’re aiming to become No.1 in Asia, so if we can’t match Guangzhou physically then that won’t be possible,” Tadanari Lee said.

“In all honesty I don’t think there’s a better team in Asia than Guangzhou, so this really gives us confidence. We have confidence that we can become an even better team and I think we are able to win the ACL.”

Lee singled Wataru Endo out for particular praise, and the manner in which the 23-year-old marshaled Jackson Martinez was hugely encouraging looking to the future for club and country.

The Japan Under-23 captain obviously refused to take personal credit for keeping the Colombia international quiet, but he also suggested there is a new sense of belief within the Reds squad.

Urawa Reds v. Guangzhou Evergrande, Tuesday 5th April, 2016

“Today it was quite easy to read where [Martinez’s] passes were going and so I was able to intercept, but it wasn’t me defending on my own,” he said.

“I was making sure I stayed aware when marking him and if he played the ball out to the side-backs not to commit myself too much, although I was always keeping watch for opportunities to move in and make an interception.

“More so than positioning ourselves as challengers, we have the mentality of playing to win. If we don’t show that posture then it’s not possible to win the ACL. Of course that helps us improve as individual players, but the priority is for the team to win, and we have to keep playing in that way in all competitions.”

That all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit was evident in the performance, with the players crashing into challenges, chasing down loose balls, and continuing to attack when the clock was running down and they could have been forgiven for trying to sit on their lead.

Petrovic often complains that his team lacks a certain ruthlessness when it comes to killing teams off, and he is sure to have been delighted with the way they persevered in that respect. They may have been unable to find a second goal, but they didn’t stop pressing forwards in search of one.

They weren’t intimidated by the opponent or occasion either, and at one point Tomoaki Makino could be seen having a verbal exchange with Guangzhou coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as the Brazilian tried to exert an influence on the referee using his not inconsiderable stature. If anything, playing against bigger, stronger, harder opponents seems to suit Reds, with the players apparently relishing the opportunity to get stuck in and scrap for the win.

“For us we want to play the kind of fantastic football that calls out to people and keeps producing results,” Makino said after Reds had made sure of the three points.

“Honestly speaking, I’m sure there were people here today who came because they wanted to see the Asian champions and Guangzhou’s players, and our aim is to play the kind of winning football that means instead of coming to see the opponent they are coming to watch Urawa’s football and Urawa’s players.”

If they can maintain the level they achieved in front of 30,000 on a chilly spring evening as the season starts to heat up, they won’t have any problem on that front.

30
Mar
16

2nd straight Japan rout still leaves questions

Japan made it comfortably into the final round of World Cup qualifiers, but know that improvements need to be made once the next stage gets underway…

The Japan News, Thursday 25th February, 2016

SAITAMA – Japan may have secured progression to the final round of World Cup qualifiers with back-to-back 5-0 wins over Afghanistan and Syria, but the players aren’t resting on their laurels and are determined to improve as they edge closer to the 2018 finals in Russia.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side made sure of top spot in Group E of the second round of qualifiers on Tuesday courtesy of a Syrian own goal, a Shinji Kagawa double, and strikes from Keisuke Honda and Genki Haraguchi.

The final three goals all came in the last eight minutes of the game, however, with the Samurai Blue also presenting Syria with a number of sights on goal in an open second half.

The manner in which we kept pushing forwards was good and we created many chances, but on the other hand we left gaps at the back and gave the opponent a lot of opportunities to score,” Shinji Okazaki, made captain on his 100th appearance but unable to add to his 48 international goals, said after the game.

“Maybe that was ok today, but from now on we’ll be playing against stronger teams and whether to take risks or not when we have a one-goal lead is something we will have to keep in mind.”

Maya Yoshida agreed, and was adamant that the team needs to tighten up if they want to make it to a sixth consecutive World Cup.

“The next round will be more difficult for us so we need to organize much better than today,” the Southampton centerback said.

“If we give away chances like today it will be a problem for us, because the opponents’ level is completely different [in the final round of qualifiers].”

The shutout against Syria meant Japan made it through the eight-game stage without conceding once, but goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa also spotted areas in need of fine-tuning.

“We did very well and pressed well from the front, winning the ball in good areas,” the Urawa Reds stopper, who started six of the second round qualifiers, said.

Japan v. Syria, Tuesday 29th March, 2016

“In the second half maybe the forward players got a little bit tired, so at those times it’s important that we organize well, and I have to contribute in that way by giving instructions.”

Honda sounded another note of caution, pointing out that the manner of qualification is ultimately irrelevant if, as in Brazil in 2014, the team doesn’t perform at the finals.

“In the end, if you don’t achieve results at the World Cup it doesn’t matter what you did beforehand. It’s a harsh world but all you are judged on is whether those three games [in the initial group stage at the World Cup] are good or bad.”

Indeed, the most recent such setback is still fresh in Yoshida’s mind.

“I remember the first game against Ivory Coast in Brazil, we had a little bit of a shock and panicked and we couldn’t manage the recovery.”

The 27-year-old thinks the team is better placed to cope in that respect now, though, with the majority of the squad increasingly accustomed to the top leagues in Europe.

“When players are used to playing against top class players it helps a lot in international games,” he said.

“For example, I’m always training with a Dutch international, Portuguese, Italian; that’s a lot of experience for me, and I’m going to try to give that to other players in Japan. That’s really important for the World Cup in Russia.”

Honda believes that the bond between the players and Halilhodzic is also vital to the team’s chances of success.

“He respects people underneath him and there’s no betrayal or blaming people in either direction,” he said. “I think he’s the kind of boss who can make a group who fight together until the end.”

The draw for the next round of qualifiers takes place on Apr. 12, with South Korea, Iran, and Asian Cup holder Australia potential opposition.

27
Mar
16

Samurai Blue benefit from more direct approach

Japan put in an assertive second half display in a match that was already won on Thursday night, and the 5-0 victory over Afghanistan contained some positive signs looking ahead to the final round of qualifiers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Sunday 27th March, 2016

It would be easy to dismiss the result on account of the opposition – and after a resolute start Afghanistan did fall apart in the second 45 minutes at Saitama Stadium on Thursday night – but Japan’s 5-0 win over Petar Segrt’s side offered plenty of encouragement as the final round of qualifiers edge closer.

Home games at this stage of qualifying tend to follow a similar pattern – defensive opponents retreating in a mass of red shirts and Japan desperately trying to pass their way through – but in the second half of this game in particular there was something a little different, more proactive, about the Samurai Blue’s approach.

“It was a beautiful victory with panache and aggression,” Vahid Halilhodzic said post-match. “Our team spirit was phenomenal and we played very aggressively.”

The manner in which his players kept up the unrelenting pressure on Afghanistan as the clock ticked down was certainly a refreshing sight, with an extra sense of zip and directness about the side as they poured forward in search of more goals.

“We were creating chances from crosses and also trying to get the ball in behind and pick up the second ball without overdoing the passes, which were things we’d spoken about before the match,” captain Makoto Hasebe said.

“Instead of playing too prettily we took a few more risks and sent some long balls attempting to break their line.”

That diversion from playing ‘pretty’ football was certainly pleasing, and the assertive formation the team set up in – essentially 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, although almost a 4-1-3-2 in reality – is perhaps something that should be attempted more often to ensure that Japan are a less predictable side to play against.

“We approached it with a fresh mentality,” man-of-the-moment Shinji Okazaki said after notching his 48th national team goal. “We had two up front, but it could also become three – it looked like it had the potential to be a dynamic combination.

“To an extent the idea was to try things without looking and see how they went. I didn’t have time to think about things too much. Maybe there were times when we were in too much of a hurry, but I felt like if we kept on like that the opponent wouldn’t like it.

Japan v. Afghanistan, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 24th March, 2016

“Against a stronger opponent maybe we wouldn’t be able to play in that way because of concerns about them countering, but today the opposition really dropped back and defended so we were able to play dynamically. We weren’t impatient and we made chances. I think things worked well when I dropped back and played as a two-shadow with [Hiroshi] Kiyotake, and that’s how my goal came about.”

Indeed, Kiyotake looked sharp in behind the strikers, while the pairing of Okazaki and Mu Kanazaki certainly has potential. The Kashima Antlers man also found the net – well, he just about managed to get the ball over the line at least – and was a constant threat going forward, with Halilhodzic praising his combativeness, presence, and the fact that he was always showing for the ball.

Then there was the returning Mike Havenaar as well, who wasn’t able to get his name on the scoresheet but did make the goal for Kanazaki after heading a cross down into his teammate’s path.

“I had 20 minutes and wanted to score – that was the intention with which I entered the game and I really thought it was going to happen,” he said after his first Japan game since October 2013. “Still, I managed to get the assist.”

The 28-year-old feels he has become physically stronger and also adapted in the way he thinks about the game since he moved to Europe, and he is confident that Halilhodzic has a clear idea of how to get the best out of his play.

“The coach wants to make a difference with me in the team. He wants more crosses coming into the box, and I think he’ll make a difference [to my role] in the team.”

More direct approach play, injecting pace and spontaneity into attacks, scoring ugly goals; these are not traits usually associated with Japan, but they are some of the things that the team need if they are serious about doing something meaningful at Russia 2018.

Of course, they need to get there first, but if they are able to build upon their ruthless second half display in this game they will certainly put themselves in a good position for a sixth straight finals.

12
Mar
16

Sasaki’s sour sayonara

Norio Sasaki delivered unprecedented success for Japanese football, and the outgoing Nadeshiko manager really deserved a better send-off than the one he received… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Saturday 12th March, 2016

A win over China in their third match and it could all have been very different, but in the end Nadeshiko Japan missed out on the Rio Olympics, signalling the end of Norio Sasaki’s outstanding reign in charge of the side.

Regardless of whether he should have taken the decision to step down after the team finished as runners-up at the 2015 World Cup or not, the manner of Sasaki’s departure leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. Bearing in mind all the 57-year-old achieved for Japanese football, he deserved a better send-off.

Instead of a fond farewell, however, the man who guided Japan to the 2011 World Cup title was forced to shuffle offstage with rumours of dressing room unrest and more swirling around the team, provoking the former Omiya Ardija boss to hit out at the media his final press conference.

“We always talk about the ‘football family’,” Sasaki said after his last match in charge ended with a 1-0 win over North Korea. “The football family doesn’t just mean the team and the fans and the JFA, but it includes the media, too. When we win everything’s great, but when we lose the coverage becomes like gossip. That’s not the job of sports newspapers.

“In the first and second games we couldn’t take three points. I think if we had been able to do that we would have had a chance. I think you can see that looking at the game today and the way we played. If we could have had our rhythm then it may have been different.”

Indeed, losing their opening game 3-1 to Australia was not an ideal start for the reigning Asian champions, and following that with a 1-1 draw against South Korea left them with an uphill battle to secure one of the two qualification berths to Rio.

It was ultimately the third game which made a difficult task nigh-on impossible, however, as a dispirited and visibly fatigued Nadeshiko side slumped to a 2-1 loss to China.

After that game China coach Bruno Bini picked up on the at tensions between the Japanese team and sections of the media, and delivered a message in support of his fellow coach Sasaki.

IMG_8146

“Tonight I cannot stop myself from thinking about my colleague, from the team of Japan,” the former France boss said. “He has won many things in the past five years, achieved the best results in the world, and I hope the people here do not have a short memory. He deserves respect from everyone.”

The 61-year-old also pointed out the impact the ludicrous schedule of the qualifiers – five games in 10 days with just a 20-woman squad – had on Japan’s high-tempo style.

“They didn’t play as they usually do today. I think this is natural. You have three games in so few days so it is very difficult to play as they usually do – meaning lots of passing and combination play.”

As well as the physical strain on the players, as hosts Sasaki and the Nadeshiko players had to deal with the expectations – and then scorn – being heaped upon them, too.

“There is always a lot of pressure around this team,” Sasaki said. “First of all it was pressure to win, to take a ticket to Rio. Then, once we couldn’t qualify, it became a different kind of pressure.

“It takes a lot of mental strength to cope with that, but the players have a very good spirit. I said to them before this last game that everyone’s still supporting so let’s show them that spirit.”

They did that by delivering their best performance of the competition and winning 1-0, and their coach exited in as optimistic a manner as he could, given the circumstances.

“This isn’t the last chance to qualify for this kind of competition,” he concluded. “In this past year [Kumi] Yokoyama and [Emi] Nakajima have really developed and grown in confidence, and more players like that will appear. I expect big things at the future.”

As one of the few – perhaps, in fact, only – Japanese coaches sought after around the world, it will be interesting to see what Sasaki does next, too. Whatever it is, though, as Bini so rightly pointed out, he deserves nothing but respect.

28
Feb
16

Ljibijankic strike gets Reds off right

Urawa Reds emerged victorious from their J1 season opener against Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday, although they were made to work for it…

The Japan News, Sunday 28th February, 2016

KASHIWA, Chiba – Substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic was the hero for Urawa Reds on Saturday, heading home a late winner to deliver a hard-fought 2-1 win away to Kashiwa Reysol on the opening day of the 2016 J.League season.

Forward Yuki Muto gave Reds the lead from a rebound in in the 52nd minute, and although Reysol equalized 12 minutes later through Hidekazu Otani, Ljubijankic was on hand to seal the three points for last year’s first stage champion in the 84th minute.

“In the first half, we started very well and were pressing them from the front and created several goal-scoring chances, while not giving the opponent any,” Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic said.

“It’s hard to keep that speed up for the whole 90 minutes, though, and after we went ahead, maybe we dropped back a little too much and invited them to attack us more, leading to their equalizer.

“Their goal was maybe a little bit lucky, but my players didn’t lose their confidence and were determined to keep going forward and do whatever they could to get the goal and make sure of victory.”

After a slightly cautious start the game burst into life in the 31st minute when Muto – who also opened the scoring in Reds’ 2-0 win in the Asian Champions League over Sydney FC on Wednesday – thought he had given his team the lead after bundling an effort goalwards at the back post.

Reysol goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura pulled off an outrageous save to keep things scoreless, however, flinging himself along his line and palming the ball to safety.

Muto and his teammates’ insisted the ball had crossed the line but referee Masaaki Iemoto ignored their appeals and things remained scoreless.

There was more drama straight after halftime, with Reds once again being denied an opening goal after a controversial call by the referee in the 49th minute.

Tomoya Ugajin showed good footwork to trick his way into the Reds penalty area from the left wing, and Tadanari Lee bundled his cut-back in at the near-post.

Former Kashiwa player Lee wheeled away in celebration as Reysol’s players surrounded Iemoto, but the official eventually decided to rule the effort out for handball.

Kashiwa Reysol v. Urawa Reds, Saturday 27th February, 2016

The visitors channeled their frustration well, though, and finally registered on the scoreboard just three minutes later, as Muto followed up sharply and poked home the rebound after Nakamura had saved an initial attempt from Lee.

“For me, I don’t like to comment on specific players,” Petrovic said.

“The performance of the team as a whole is the most important thing, and that’s why my team always fights as one.

“Muto scored the goal, but several players were involved in the build-up – if Lee hadn’t turned and shot, for instance, then the opportunity wouldn’t have come up.”

Going behind appeared to spark a hitherto rather timid Reysol into life, and they pulled themselves level in the 64th minute after a lightning counter started by the impressive Junya Ito.

The 22-year-old surged through a couple of challenges in the middle of the pitch from right-back and found Diego Oliveira on the right wing, before the Brazilian broke into the penalty area and tried his luck.

Shusaku Nishikawa managed to block his initial effort and a follow-up from Akimi Barada, but was powerless as the ball fell kindly for Hidekazu Otani to lash home.

Reysol then seized the initiative and forced Reds back, with Diego Oliveira relishing his matchup against Tomoaki Makino – who was playing in the center of Reds’ back three as opposed to his usual position on the left – and looking particularly dangerous when in possession.

Hiroki Akino missed the host’s best chance to take the lead, however, heading over a rebound from close range after Ryosuke Yamanaka had headed against the post.

Zlatan was then on hand to make Reysol pay, flicking home a header from Muto’s corner from the right with just six minutes left on the clock.

Elsewhere reigning champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima got its title defense off to a poor start, going down 1-0 at home to Kawasaki Frontale.

Yu Kobayashi struck the only goal of the game in the 84th minute, serving Hajime Moriyasu’s side its second home defeat in five days after it also went down 2-1 to Shandong Luneng in the ACL on Tuesday.

27
Feb
16

Purple Archers ready to fire

Sanfrecce Hiroshima were worthy champions last season, and their recharged frontline looks ready to fire again in 2016… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 27th February, 2016

Sanfrecce Hiroshima started this season in exactly the same way as they ended the last, putting on a characteristically up-tempo and diverse attacking display as they beat Gamba Osaka – their vanquished opponents in last year’s Championship final – 3-1 in last weekend’s Super Cup.

It was hard to believe that the team only had three weeks off between finishing third at the Club World Cup and getting their 2016 preparations underway, and the connections between players were as smooth as ever at Nissan Stadium.

There were some concerns that the departure of Douglas would lessen the team’s attacking threat, but Hisato Sato demonstrated that he is still the best in the J.League when it comes to converting the chances that come his way, while Takuma Asano looks like he is only going to get better – with last season’s title-deciding goal and his dramatic winning brace in the final of the U23 Asian Championship adding extra confidence to his already intimidating ability.

And then there is Peter Utaka, who introduced himself to his new team with a goal just four minutes after coming on as a 69th-minute substitute to nip any Gamba revival in the bud.

Ahead of the season, Moriyasu had spoken of the need for such clinical finishing if Sanfrecce are to maintain their status as Japan’s No.1 team.

“For Asano I want him to score more goals than last year,” he said at the J.League’s Pre-Season Press Conference. “Last year he scored eight in the league – of course he made lots of other contributions, too – but initially I want him to focus on scoring more goals himself, and also to be involved in creating them.

“Utaka is individually talented and technically gifted, he can make chances and score goals, and now we’re working to help him fit into the team. I think he can play as a shadow striker or as a goal-getter – but I think he’s more of a chance-maker [than Douglas].”

The new-boy seems like a smart acquisition with the requisite football intelligence to add a new dimension to Sanfrecce’s attacking forays.

“I was watching the game from the bench and knew a little what I wanted to do and where the spaces on the pitch were,” Utaka said after the Super Cup. “I wanted to try and see if I could get a goal and it happened to work for me today.”

Having been a regular starter at Shimizu S-Pulse last season the Nigerian has no qualms about having to share the striking duties this year.

J1 trophies 2016

“Whoever plays is going to give a good account of themselves, so it’s up to the coach to decide,” he said. “We’re going to play a lot of games so we’ll keep rotating the team all the time.

“One player can’t play 50 games, so if it’s your turn you get in there and give a good performance.

“I’m not comparing myself with Douglas; Douglas is Douglas, I’m Peter Utaka. There’s no pressure, I’m not putting pressure on myself. My job is to give my best every game. I’ll give 110% and if it works it works, if it doesn’t work then ok, I’ll try and look ahead to the next game.”

Mihael Mikic stressed that it does take time for new players to adapt to Sanfrecce’s intricate and demanding style, but has been impressed with the way Utaka has settled in.

“Our system is not so easy to play for a player who is coming in,” the 36-year-old said. “But he’s doing a really good job and I tried to explain to him that every training session is so hard that for us the games are like a holiday! It is very difficult to play in our training and every player is so motivated.”

Utaka admitted that he had been a little taken aback by the Purple Archers’ elaborate training sessions, but stressed that he is keen to add something new to their weaponry.

“The system is a little bit complicated, the position where I’m playing now is not what I’ve been used to, but it’s what we’ve been working on in pre-season so I’m trying to fit into the team.”

One thing he does share with all true strikers is a desire to claim any goal that comes his way, and he was quick to shut down the suggestion that Yosuke Ideguchi’s connection may have helped him break his scoring duck so early.

“It was going inside!” he laughed. “It was going inside, he shouldn’t have touched it!”

Things look daunting for the chasing pack, then, and while Moriyasu is trying to talk down his team’s status – “This year we’re starting from scratch to build the team, then we’ll fight together” – and Mikic is also toeing the party line – “Every year our target is 40 points. We don’t have any pressure. We only want to stay in J1 as fast as possible, take the 40 points, and then after that anything is possible” – there can be no doubt that Sanfrecce will be the team to beat in J1 once again this season.




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