Last week I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Mihael Mikic about his team’s chances of retaining their J1 title, his former coach Mihailo Petrovic, and the Kanto bias in the Japanese media…
HIROSHIMA – With just three games to go four teams are still in with a realistic chance of becoming the 2013 J.League champion. Leader Yokohama F.Marinos is just three points ahead of fourth place Kashima Antlers, while wedged inbetween at single point intervals are Urawa Reds and, in third, reigning champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Sanfrecce upset the odds to claim their maiden league title last season, but experienced midfielder Mihael Mikic believes that success was theirs for the taking.
“I know our quality and last year, I must say, I was a little surprised,” he said at the club’s training ground last week. “But when I analyzed other teams and our team I said, “we have the perfect players, in the perfect time, in the perfect age. We have the perfect balance and everything is perfect for us. Now it must be our chance.””
He and his teammates took that opportunity and knew that defending their crown would be a tall order, with no team having won consecutive championships since Kashima claimed their third in a row in 2009.
“After last year I was thinking the most hard job was to be champion again,” Mikic admitted. “But after half a season we were in first place and we said, “hey, guys, no more hiding, we are a big candidate [to be] the champion. This year we must also take this chance.””
The Croatian is full of praise for coach Hajime Moriyasu, who achieved last year’s triumph in his debut season on the bench, but is also keen to extoll the virtues of his predecessor, Mihailo “Mischa” Petrovic.
“To be honest I had so many coaches before — and really good coaches,” Mikic said. “The national coach of Croatia in 1998 [Miroslav Blazevic] was my coach in Dinamo Zagreb, then many famous names; also Osvaldo Ardiles.
“But when I saw Mischa’s style — how he made the training — I really, for the first time in my life, said, “yeah, now I understand what the coach means [to the] team”. That is [fortunate for me], and I am so happy because I [could participate in his] training for three years.”
As an added twist to the title race Petrovic could actually prevent his former club from claiming a second straight crown though, as he is now in charge of Urawa.
The Saitama giant is without a trophy since it won the Asian Champions League in 2007 but currently sits a point above Sanfrecce going into this weekend’s games.
Mikic has no ill-feeling about his former mentor’s switch but is often disappointed with the relative lack of coverage his team — especially as the reigning champion — receives in comparison to clubs closer to the capital.
“Everybody says, “ah, Yokohama, Urawa, now Kashima,” everybody speaks about these clubs but nobody wants to speak about Sanfrecce. Why?” he demands.
“Sanfrecce was the champion last year and this year we have a big chance to be the champion. But everybody ignores us. That, I really must say, that is not correct. Because we are a really good team. We have potential and [over the] next two, three years we [will] play, I think, also at this level.”
They will need to showcase that ability tomorrow when they travel to in-form Cerezo Osaka, and anything other than a victory could see the championship disappear over the horizon. Far from being daunted by that prospect Mikic is instead relishing the challenge.
“I’m excited because we have a big chance,” the 33-year-old said.
“But also I am realistic. We have a hard schedule. Maybe the hardest schedule [of the top four] teams. But what is good for us [is that] against hard teams we always play good. That’s because I’m not so scared for the big games. Cerezo and Kashima [on the last day of the season]; that is, for me, the challenge. If we win these games then we deserve to be the champion.”