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)
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.
“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.