Urawa Reds could progress to the knockout stages of the ACL with a game to spare on Wednesday, and their recent win over Guangzhou Evergrande – and in particular the manner of it – suggests they’ll be one of the teams to reckon with once there… (日本語版はこちらです)
Mihailo Petrovic had spent the bulk of the game crutching himself about his technical area frantically conveying instructions and encouragement to his players, but at full time the pain disappeared and the sticks flew in the air.
The Urawa Reds manager knew this win, and the manner of it, was huge for his club – perhaps even the biggest since he took over at the start of the 2012 season.
Not only had the hosts beaten Guangzhou Evergrande – the reigning Asian Champions – 1-0 to all-but secure a place in the knockout round of the ACL; not only had they all-but knocked Guangzhou out of the competition in the process; but they had done it with confidence, aggression, and passion.
“I have been in Japan for 10 years and seen many games but it is very rare to see such a good game,” the Serbian enthused after the match.
“The very important thing is that we proved that money cannot buy a win. Guangzhou has great foreign players but we were still able to play hard and beat them. I have a very bad back right now but today I was able to forget that – that’s how much I was able to get into the game.”
Match-winner Yuki Muto spoke afterwards of how Petrovic had demanded that his players treat the game like a final – a cliché, sure, but one which the players seemed to have taken on board, and which, in truth, it sort of was. Knock out the best team in the continent and who is there left to fear?
“We’re aiming to become No.1 in Asia, so if we can’t match Guangzhou physically then that won’t be possible,” Tadanari Lee said.
“In all honesty I don’t think there’s a better team in Asia than Guangzhou, so this really gives us confidence. We have confidence that we can become an even better team and I think we are able to win the ACL.”
Lee singled Wataru Endo out for particular praise, and the manner in which the 23-year-old marshaled Jackson Martinez was hugely encouraging looking to the future for club and country.
The Japan Under-23 captain obviously refused to take personal credit for keeping the Colombia international quiet, but he also suggested there is a new sense of belief within the Reds squad.
“Today it was quite easy to read where [Martinez’s] passes were going and so I was able to intercept, but it wasn’t me defending on my own,” he said.
“I was making sure I stayed aware when marking him and if he played the ball out to the side-backs not to commit myself too much, although I was always keeping watch for opportunities to move in and make an interception.
“More so than positioning ourselves as challengers, we have the mentality of playing to win. If we don’t show that posture then it’s not possible to win the ACL. Of course that helps us improve as individual players, but the priority is for the team to win, and we have to keep playing in that way in all competitions.”
That all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit was evident in the performance, with the players crashing into challenges, chasing down loose balls, and continuing to attack when the clock was running down and they could have been forgiven for trying to sit on their lead.
Petrovic often complains that his team lacks a certain ruthlessness when it comes to killing teams off, and he is sure to have been delighted with the way they persevered in that respect. They may have been unable to find a second goal, but they didn’t stop pressing forwards in search of one.
They weren’t intimidated by the opponent or occasion either, and at one point Tomoaki Makino could be seen having a verbal exchange with Guangzhou coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as the Brazilian tried to exert an influence on the referee using his not inconsiderable stature. If anything, playing against bigger, stronger, harder opponents seems to suit Reds, with the players apparently relishing the opportunity to get stuck in and scrap for the win.
“For us we want to play the kind of fantastic football that calls out to people and keeps producing results,” Makino said after Reds had made sure of the three points.
“Honestly speaking, I’m sure there were people here today who came because they wanted to see the Asian champions and Guangzhou’s players, and our aim is to play the kind of winning football that means instead of coming to see the opponent they are coming to watch Urawa’s football and Urawa’s players.”
If they can maintain the level they achieved in front of 30,000 on a chilly spring evening as the season starts to heat up, they won’t have any problem on that front.