The Forlan factor

We are still in the early stages of the season but Diego Forlan is taking a little longer than many expected to adapt to the J.League… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/04/25/post37801/)

Football Channel,  April 25th, 2014

Eight games into the 2014 season and the Forlan factor is certainly benefitting the J.League, with Cerezo Osaka’s matches having attracted over 214,000 fans to the stadium (an average of almost 27,000). That represents a doubling of the club’s figures from last year, when at this stage they’d played in front of just over 103,000 supporters (an average of a little under 13,000 a game).

While ticket sales mean the Uruguay star is paying off some of his salary – and boosting the coffers of rival clubs when they host Cerezo – his results on the pitch haven’t yet lived up to the billing.

Two crisp finishes in the Osaka derby against Gamba and a poacher’s effort against Kashima Antlers demonstrate that he hasn’t lost the ability to find the back of the net, and three goals is not an especially poor return from 594 minutes on the pitch, but his all-round contribution to the team and, in particular, his combination play – or lack thereof – with Yoichiro Kakitani is a cause for concern.

After the 2-0 loss to FC Tokyo last weekend – their sixth consecutive competitive game without a win, in which he was substituted with 18 minutes to play – Forlan was clearly not in the best of moods and refused to speak to the media. His coach, Ranko Popovic, though was quick to defend his marquee player.

“Look, Diego joined a little bit late and he’s played in this one-and-a-half months more games than in the half-year before, people shouldn’t forget that,” the Serbian told me in the mixed zone post-game. “He needs the time like everybody. He needs the time to adapt to everything in Japan, it’s new. He’s doing well, he’s better and better every day but he is not a machine, he’s also a human being, you know.”

Forlan’s longer-than-expected adjustment period isn’t the only thing that is hampering Cerezo in the first quarter of the season though, and Kakitani’s form has also deserted him, with no goals in the J.League so far in 2014, after 21 last season.

“We also need goals from Yoichiro and he knows that and he’s also under pressure,” Popovic admitted. “He’s playing his second regular J1 season [it’s actually his third]. In his first season nobody expected anything from him. Now he has something to defend and for him there is also the World Cup.”

Is he perhaps thinking too much about reserving a seat on the plane to Brazil, I asked – maybe a little preoccupied with that and avoiding injury?

“Look, he can say what he wants, but behind, always is a little bit, what?” Popovic said. “This is normal, this is psychology and he is a human being and doesn’t have immunity from that. I just want to try and relax him. Don’t think about things outside.”

As his coach said that is easier said than done though, and with the media closely scrutinizing the 24-year-old’s form he is clearly feeling the strain.

“I have to score goals. I’m not able to score and the team isn’t winning,” he said after the Tokyo defeat. “If we could score first then we would be able to play more calmly. Of course I know that but it’s not just about saying it, I have to show it in my actions. Now I’m not helping the team and I really want to do my job and score the first goal to get the team going. I want to overcome this situation.”

Is something coming between Kakitani and Forlan?

Forlan, you would assume, must be offering words of advice to his young strike partner to help alleviate those concerns, although the former Manchester United man suggested he is not being specifically asked to mentor Kakitani or any of the other youngsters at the club.

“Not like I have to,” he said after another recent defeat in J1, away to Kashiwa Reysol. “You can talk to them and use experience, different things. If they want to listen sometimes – they don’t have to do something they don’t want to. I’m there if someone wants to talk. Sometimes during the training, sometimes I see things so I try to do my best, to tell them things because I have experience.”

The heavy schedule which so often seems to impact on the teams involved in the ACL may be limiting the chances he has to help on that front though, with Popovic pointing out that the team haven’t been able to settle into any kind of regular training routine.

“The biggest problem now is we don’t have time for training,” he said. “We only have recovery and then training before the games.”

Ironically a goal each from Kakitani and Forlan have served to prolong that difficulty, with Cerezo having secured progression to the second round of continental competition after their 2-1 win away to Shandong Luneng on Wednesday. As soon as the team are able to repeat combinations on the practice pitch Popovic is confident that results will improve though.

“It will be better, of course. Look, Barcelona with Messi and Neymar had a problem, you know. Messi is not more Messi because Neymar is coming. They have to adapt to each other.”

Forlan, too, was calling for patience after the Reysol game, stopping short of endorsing the pre-season claim that Cerezo were favourites for the title.

“I think it’s very early to say,” he said. “It’s a good team with good players, young players, but we need to keep going and winning games. We drew the last game and now we lost. We need to start winning games if you’re going to be ahead from the other guys.

“We are going to try to be close and you never know at the end of the league. The last five, six games are very crucial when you have to win the title.”

Of course, you need to be in amongst the pack at that stage to have any say in the title race and if Cerezo don’t start collecting wins soon they may find themselves too far behind the pacesetters to be challenging for the J1 shield come November.

“The expectation is big for us, and [before the season] I told you how realistic that is, because this year the team must be fighting for the first time, these guys must be fighting for something – before they were playing for [the sake of] playing,” Popovic said last Saturday. “Now they have the pressure and we must learn to deal with this pressure.”

Forlan’s contribution from here on in will determine whether they can do that or not.


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