Seamless transition

Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup last Sunday, and while the 2-1 win over Oita Trinita brought the curtain down on one era, it also heralded the beginning of a new and intriguing one for the Saitama side… (日本語版)

When teams win trophies, it is often customary to contextualise their triumph in one of two ways.

The title can be looked at as the realisation of a long and hard road to glory, for instance, as with Kawasaki Frontale’s maiden J1 title in 2017 after many years of falling at the final hurdle.

On other occasions – think Vissel Kobe lifting the 2019 Emperor’s Cup – the feat is considered more as a springboard, in terms of what it could lead to for an emerging side in the following seasons.

Urawa Reds’ 2-1 win over Oita Trinita in last weekend’s Emperor’s Cup final, however, was a little unusual in that it provoked both feelings simultaneously.

Much was made in the build-up to the showpiece at the new National Stadium of the fact that the match would be Yuki Abe, Tomoya Ugajin, and Tomoaki Makino’s last as Reds players, and it was certainly hard to shake the significance of that fact as proceedings played out on a crisp and clear afternoon in Sendagaya.

The retiring Abe didn’t make the matchday squad, but both Ugajin and Makino came on as second half substitutes for Urawa – the latter performing his trademark mini haka before entering the fray with seven minutes to play and Urawa 1-0 up and seemingly on the brink of victory – and despite the concession of a last-gasp equaliser the trio’s fairytale ending was assured in the 93rd minute when Makino, who else, diverted home a dramatic late winner.

At the same time as that narrative being drawn to an emotional close, though, there was also a great deal about Reds’ triumph that served as something of an hors d’oeuvre to whet the appetite for what may lay ahead for Ricardo Rodriguez’s side.

Urawa tore out of the traps in the early knockings, clearly having seen how well Trinita frustrated Frontale in the semi-final a week earlier and not wanting to allow Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side to settle into their groove again in the final. Takahiro Sekine and Yoshio Koizumi were especially lively going forwards, Kasper Junker and Ataru Esaka pressed high up the pitch – even for Oita goal kicks – while Kai Shibato and Atsuki Ito buzzed and snapped around in the middle of the park to seize control of the opening exchanges.

Hiroki Sakai and Takahiro Akimoto also exemplified Reds’ early intent and offered proactive and energetic options from full-back, and it was hardly surprising when they took the lead in the sixth minute, Esaka drilling home from the edge of the area after Koizumi and Sekine had forced their way in from the right flank.

Oita came out with more fire in their belly in the second half and the game plateaued somewhat as the minutes ticked away, but Reds maintained their composure even after being pegged back so late on and few could argue that they weren’t worthy winners.  

Claiming a title and securing an ACL berth in his first season in charge is no mean feat for Rodriguez, particularly when considering just how much he has managed to reshape the team since taking over at the start of the 2021 campaign.

Urawa ended the previous year miserably, losing four and drawing one of their last five games as they slumped to a 10th place finish in J1, and it was clear that sweeping changes were required on and off the pitch if the Saitama side was to get back amongst the big boys.

The Spaniard didn’t shy away from instigating that revamp, and the team he sent out to take on Oita was almost unrecognisable from that which hobbled over the finish line 12 months earlier. Stalwarts Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yuki Muto had both been moved on by the summer, as was Kenyu Sugimoto, and along with Abe, Ugajin, and Makino the writing also looks like it is on the wall for another club legend Shinzo Koroki, who is widely rumoured to be at the top of his former manager Mihailo Petrovic’s shopping list at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.

The manner in which Rodriguez has facilitated that changeover while still producing results is worthy of huge praise, and it is certainly rare for a manager to be able to preserve a spirit of togetherness amongst a squad during such upheaval.

The recent/impending departure of so many key figures certainly didn’t seem to have affected the morale of the team if the interviews after the semi-final and final were anything to go by, and Ugajin – who opened the scoring in the semi-final against Cerezo Osaka – and Makino both spoke of their motivation to go out on a high and leave the players who will be pulling on the red shirt next season the gift of ACL football.

The next stage of the team’s evolution will of course be far from straightforward and many hurdles remain, but the assuredness with which the first steps have been taken suggests the future looks bright indeed for this new-look Urawa.

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