Scoring lots of goals is normally the primary demand of a striker. For Alberto Zaccheroni that gift is obviously not enough…
It was quite the week for Hisato Sato.
In Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 4-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday night he set the outstanding record of having scored 10 or more goals in each of the past 10 J.League seasons – and not being content with just one strike he helped himself to a hat-trick.
His final finish – a sublime hit from 20 yards – exemplified a player in the form of his career, perhaps even more confident and lethal than last season when he claimed the top scorer award with 22 goals.
Just watch it again. The way he sets himself, lets the ball come across his body and then sweetly guides it over the despairing dive of Rikihiro Sugiyama and into the back of the net. For me what was more impressive than the technical execution of the strike was the sheer certainty with which he carried out the skill. He knew exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. And he knew that he was going to score.
There are few things as fearsome in a striker as that level of self-belief, and bearing that in mind it is astonishing that just five days later Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni elected to omit Sato from his squad for the East Asian Cup – a selection comprising entirely of J.League players.
That blow may very well have sounded the death-knell for his national team career – and almost certainly his hopes of making a last-ditch run at the Brazil 2014 World Cup finals – and it is very difficult to understand why Zaccheroni doesn’t rate him.
Ahead of the season Sato’s club coach Hajime Moriyasu admitted that they had relied hugely on the veteran’s goals on the way to their maiden J1 title last season, and suggested they may have to adapt their approach this year to defend the crown.
“Of course I want Sato to get more than 20 goals again but I can guess the marking against him will be tighter so other players need to score goals, too,” he said.
He needn’t have worried. Despite the fact that everyone knows what a threat the 5 foot 6 striker poses, they don’t seem to know how to stop him and he made it to 12 goals this term after just 15 games.
I spoke to his teammate Mihael Mikic a week or so ahead of the East Asian Cup announcement, and he was in awe of Sato’s adaptability and suggested that if he didn’t make the trip to Korea the Purple Archers would be the ones to benefit.
“He’s a really, really good striker,” the Croatian said. “For us it’s better if he doesn’t go but I think for Japan it’s better if he plays because he’s so dangerous. In the box he’s really, really dangerous. He has this perfect technique, movement, everything. Now many teams know how he runs but again he scores. That is unbelievable. Even though they know, he always scores.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, as those who knew Sato as a youngster believe he always exhibited those traits.
“[When I was coach at JEF in 2001] he quickly showed that he was a prospect for the future and there was the feeling that he was going to become a big player,” Zdenko Verdenik told me in April. “He has speed and the ability to cut through teams. He also had a fantastic sense to sniff out chances in the penalty area and to find the spaces from which it is possible to score goals. He’s an incredibly gifted player.”
Urawa Reds captain Yuki Abe came through the youth ranks at JEF with the 2012 Player of the Season and also recognized a rare gift.
“I played with him since the junior youth, so for about eight years,” he said after last year’s J.League Awards. “His play style and one touch finishing, and the way he adjusted his body to meet passes and timed things to escape defenders were always good back then.”
He’s still got it now and is one of the most consistently prolific forwards in the J.League, capable of scoring a wide variety of goals.
Zaccheroni, however, just isn’t interested.