Urawa Reds latest bout of underachievement could see them “starting again” again next season…
It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this.
When Zeljko Petrovic arrived at the start of the season he was adamant that his beloved Urawa should not be kicking their heels in the middle-reaches of the table, and insisted that he had arrived to drag them back to the top where they belonged.
“What you see in Saitama is in Manchester or in Munich or in Barcelona, Real Madrid – it’s the same level, Urawa is the same level in Asia,” he said.
“I haven’t come here to be 9th or 7th or 8th, I like to be the best or one of the best.”
And, in a way, he has lived up to that promise, with Reds not finding themselves in any of those league positions so far. Sadly though, they have not been anywhere near being one of the best either, and the side are yet to move out of the bottom half of the table.
Despite experiencing their customary slow-start things seemed to be looking up when they hammered Grampus 3-0 in Saitama in April, and Petrovic reiterated his goal after that game.
“What I want for Urawa Reds is if you play a bad season, a very bad season, you will be in the first four. And if you play a good season you have to be champion. Not ‘good season champion, bad season number 10, 8, 11’.”
They failed to build on this victory though, and after a barren patch without wins in May and June Petrovic’s future was starting to be called into question, with the side heading into a crucial run of four games that could have spelled the end.
Although they didn’t lose any of those matches they can’t be said to have come out of them as a better team, and despite beating Avispa, three draws against Grampus, Gamba and Yamagata leave them just outside the relegation zone and suggest that there are still several problems to be overcome.
Aside from Genki Haraguchi, who is finally showing more than just potential, very few players are playing at anywhere near the best of their ability, and the absence of a striker is without doubt the biggest of their concerns at this moment in time.
While the departure of Edmilson has hardly helped matters this was a problem while he was still with the team, and his lumbering presence in the final third was not doing a great deal to improve Reds’ attacking forays.
His countryman Mazola has proved equally inept in front of goal, and his hat-trick of misses against Gamba wonderfully summed up the side’s form in 2011 so far.
Reds fans are now pinning their hopes on new striker Ranko Despotovic, although nobody really knows what to expect of him or how long it will take him to settle with the side – if he does at all – and even Petrovic admitted to being a little in the dark about the Serbia international.
“This is Japan, you need maybe adaptation but I don’t have the time. Normally he’s a finisher; scorer, running, good professional. This is my information, I never saw him play. But I hope he’s also a little bit of a target man because how we play you need somebody there to get the ball and play to the side.”
One player who should be out to the side but hasn’t been very often this year is Naoki Yamada.
Naoki, who is undoubtedly one of the most naturally gifted members of the Urawa squad, has struggled to find a regular place in the team this season, and it seems to me that Petrovic is still unsure about him. After the Gamba game the coach singled Haraguchi and Shunki Takahashi out for praise, but suggested that Naoki was not quite there yet.
“I’m so proud of Genki. I know that when I started he was totally different. When I started with Shunki he was totally different. Naoki is coming. All young players are much, much better. One makes maybe faster progression than other ones but this is normal.”
Normal it may be, but, as Petrovic himself said, time is one thing he doesn’t have much of, and while he will surely see out the rest of this season it might not be long before we are re-setting the timer for yet another new coach in Saitama.