28
Dec
18

Abe more than able

Hiroki Abe enjoyed a breakout season for Kashima Antlers this season, and looks like he has everything in place to become a truly top player… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 28th December, 2018

From time to time a player emerges in the J.League who looks like the real deal.

Every year, of course, there are those who show potential, who hit purple patches of form and raise the hopes of their club’s fans, but all too often these players struggle to build on those early flashes, failing to add the tools they require to move to the next level.

On occasion though, a youngster appears with everything already in place – in need of fine-tuning and improving, of course, but the ingredients are there – and Hiroki Abe is one of those players.

When I arrived in Japan a decade ago a 17-year-old Takashi Usami was making waves at Gamba Osaka, in 2014 it was fresh-from-university Yoshinori Muto dominating for FC Tokyo and attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs, and this season Abe has shown similar ability at Kashima Antlers.

The 19-year-old hasn’t possessed the same goalscoring threat as either Usami or Muto, but the way he carries himself out on the pitch shows he is already fully at ease playing for the best team in Asia and more than capable of becoming a player who can decide games.

The esteem in which he is already held at Kashima was demonstrated when he flew back from Indonesia having helped Japan U-19s qualify for next year’s U-20 World Cup and was put straight into the starting line-up for the first leg of the ACL final against Persepolis, not letting his coach down and playing a vital role as the team claimed a crucial 2-0 victory.

Abe didn’t look the least bit intimidated by the occasion and caused his Iranian opponents all manner of problems, looking to carry the ball forward at every opportunity and always trying to make something happen.

Similarly to when both Usami and Muto were breaking out, there is a swell of expectation in the stadium when Abe gets on the ball, and his desire to play proactively drew five fouls in his 69 minutes on the pitch, while he also recorded an 88.2% accuracy rating with his passes in the opponent’s half (87% overall).

“We all knew this wasn’t going to be an easy game, but we had confidence that whether we were put under pressure or however the game went that we could keep our concentration and persevere, and I think we showed that here,” he told the-AFC.com after the game.

“When [Persepolis] brought more of a mental game we made sure we didn’t break, and I think we were able to outdo the opponent in that respect, which also became a factor in the win.”

Football Channel, 28th Dec 2018

As mature and composed off the pitch as he is on it, the Tokyo native added that far from being nervous about the upcoming second leg he was instead relishing the opportunity to play in front of 100,000-plus fans in Tehran.

“As professional sports players it’s unacceptable not to play to the best of our ability in front of supporters,” he said. “As players we have to show strength worthy of that stage, and I’m looking forward to it.”

After seeing the job through in the Azadi, Abe and Kashima booked their place as Asian representatives in this month’s Club World Cup, where the youngster again took no time to make an impression.

While it was his fine goal in the quarter-final against C.D. Guadalajara that earned this year’s J.League Young Player of the Year all the headlines, it was something he did one minute earlier that reinforced the fact that this is a player with a real sense for the game.

With things still delicately poised at 2-1, a Kashima attack in the 83rd minute broke down and Guadalajara midfielder Orbelin Pineda strode forwards with the ball looking to launch a dangerous counter attack. Many young players would have made an honest attempt to try and win back possession in that situation but Abe, wise to the danger, knew the odds were against him and didn’t hesitate to take one for the team, committing a clear foul and picking up a yellow card but ensuring Antlers were still in charge of their destiny – which he himself made sure of 60 seconds later when he arced that perfect strike beyond the despairing dive of Raul Gudino.

Abe had only come on as a substitute against Guadalajara, but after playing a pivotal role in turning that game in Kashima’s favour he was back in the eleven for the semi-final against Real Madrid, and while the team struggled to offer much resistance against Gareth Bale and co – paying the price for some lax defending right before and soon after half time to find themselves 3-0 down – he continued to run at Dani Carvajal at any opportunity, chasing and harrying from the front right until the final whistle.

Although Kashima again finished on the wrong side of the result in their next game against River Plate, the 4-0 scoreline flattered the Argentinians – Antlers hit the bar three times and conceded the third and fourth goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes – and Abe was again a constant threat with the ball at his feet, reinforcing the fact that his aim is not just to appear on the biggest stages but to make an impact on them.

If he continues to develop as he has done this season then those days are sure to come sooner rather than later.

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