No one is looking forward to the start of the J. League season more than Urawa Reds.
The Saitama giant, by far the biggest club in Japan with a wealth of riches and attendance figures others can only dream of, is keen to wash over the memory of last year’s spectacular end-of-season implosion and set about reclaiming the title it won for the first time in 2006.
With a lead of seven points over nearest rival Gamba Osaka with just four matches to go, Reds limped to two scoreless draws and a defeat to go into the final day just one point ahead of Kashima Antlers, a team which suddenly found itself in real contention following a record streak of wins.
Urawa was still hot favorite to reclaim the title, however, and only needed a victory over league whipping boys Yokohama FC, the fastest-ever relegated team in the J. League, to make sure.
But a campaign which saw Reds become the first Japanese winners of the Asian Champions League, taking the club to Australia, Iran and Indonesia, among other places, brought everything crashing down.
The sight of 40-year-old “King Kazu” Miura skipping past the shattered Reds defense said it all. Urawa was dead on its feet, and Kashima took full advantage.
Reds manager Holger Osieck openly admitted his players had nothing left in the tank, but the German would have to pick them up soon if they wanted to avoid more humiliation at December’s Club World Cup, which Urawa had qualified for as Asian champion.
A narrow 1-0 defeat to AC Milan, followed by a bronze medal-winning playoff against Etoile Sahel of Tunisia, salvaged some pride, and Osieck is happy to remember the positives rather than the pain of Yokohama.
“I think we have already got over the league, and we showed that at the Club World Cup,” he said last week.
“We got our stuff together and did very well. I think we benefited from that experience rather than the one that came before.”
The game against Etoile was the last in an Urawa shirt for Brazilian talisman Washington, who returned to his homeland after notching 42 goals in two seasons at the club.
The striker was named J. League player of the year in 2006, but Osieck believes the club has bought well to make up for his departure.
Japan striker Naohiro Takahara has been repatriated from Eintracht Frankfurt, while international teammate Alex returns to the club after a one-year loan spell at Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.
Brazilian Edmilson will also bolster the front line following his move from Albirex Niigata.
“We got quality players,” Osieck said.
“Both Takahara and Edmilson have great potential, and in addition we have our proven players from last season. I think we are in a good position for the coming season.
“Alex is a quality player and he has shown a great deal of commitment during preseason. I can see that he wants to prove something, and I think he is a great option.”
Unfortunately for Osieck, a groin strain on the eve of the big kickoff looks to have ruled the midfielder out for the first half of the season, and there maybe more headaches to come.
Critics have pointed to an overabundance of top players at the club, prompting speculation that Osieck will have his hands full trying to satisfy egos when stellar names are left on the bench.
The manager admits he will be negotiating stormy waters.
“On one hand it is good that we have so many options, but on the other it can be problematic,” he said.
“The important thing is that I have to channel it in the right direction.”
Urawa has lost other players than just Washington. Shinji Ono has left the club for a second time, moving to Bochum, while Makoto Hasebe has joined Ono in Germany at Wolfsburg.
Osieck was never really a huge fan of either player, but their departure, coupled with an injury to playmaker Robson Ponte, means Urawa could be missing a player with the magic touch to unlock stubborn defenses.
The club has brought in highly rated young midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki from Oita Trinita, but Osieck rejects the tag of playmaker for his new signing.
“I would never consider Umesaki a playmaker,” he said.
“He is a versatile midfielder and he can create a lot of problems for defenses. It is more his individual touch compared to Robson, and I didn’t pursue his transfer in order to play him in the youth team.”
Umesaki has a lot to do if he is to live up to previous Reds favorites such as Washington, Guido Buchwald, Aitor Beguiristain and Emerson.
But for a club with such an illustrious history of overseas players, Osieck is in no hurry to sign one more to fill out the quota of three foreigners permitted in each J. League squad.
“I don’t see any urgency for another foreign player,” he said.
“If I look at the team, up front we are OK and we have a lot of options. On the flanks we have our players, and defensively we are OK, too. So personally I don’t see any necessity.”