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Leandro’s early strike prolongs misery for Reds, new coach

by Andrew Mckirdy

Urawa Reds’ early season nightmare continued on Thursday as Vissel Kobe claimed a 1-0 Nabisco Cup win in new Reds manager Gert Engels’ first match in charge. Leandro’s third-minute strike was enough to send the J. League’s biggest club crashing to its third defeat in three games, setting the seal on a week of turmoil that saw manager Holger Osieck fired on Sunday following a player revolt.

The situation at the club is now so bad that several thousand angry fans stayed on for well over an hour after the final whistle to demand answers from club president Mitsunori Fujiguchi, who addressed the concerns of the “Ultras” through a megaphone.

A young Urawa side missing several key players on international duty found its rhythm after a labored first half, but with Kobe content to soak up pressure and hit on the break, Reds were unable even to score their first goal of the season, let alone claim the win.

“In the first half we were well-organized,” Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda said after the match.

“And after that we were happy to sit back and hit them on the counterattack. We are comfortable doing that, and we were able to play to our own tempo.”

Less than a week into the job, Engels is already under pressure to deliver.

“The game was OK,” the German said. “We passed the ball well rather than just going for the power play.

“But we have got to work to not make mistakes and give away goals after three minutes. We know teams come here to try to score on the counterattack and to defend, and we need to score the first goal and go into games with confidence.”

If Urawa was hoping for a fresh start after Osieck’s departure, the start of Thursday’s match did not bode well.

With just three minutes on the clock, Vissel’s Ryosuke Matsuoka launched the ball into the box. Defender Satoshi Horinouchi, outjumped in his own penalty area, managed to head his clearance only as far as Leandro, who duly blasted the ball past Ryota Tsuzuki to give Kobe the lead.

Engels refused to blame the turbulence leading up the match for the early setback.

“Of course the tension was quite high,” he said, “but there wasn’t any special nervousness.

“The mood in the team isn’t bad. It is very professional, and the players know they have responsibilities. We didn’t have much time to work on the details before this match, but the players worked well in training and concentrated.”

If the players were taken by surprise by Kobe’s opener, that was nothing compared to how Engels learned of his sudden promotion following Osieck’s dismissal.

“I was told to come to the pitch at 10 o’clock, which is normal,” he said. “I came with my kit, and I had no preview that it would be a day like it was.

“Of course I was surprised. There were some things going on, not only the results. There were some things to talk about, and some problems. But the time was too short to say I saw it coming.”

With several key men missing against Kobe, Urawa’s defense looked vulnerable to the lurking menace of Leandro in the first half, and while midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki was proving a handful for Vissel’s back line, his poor crossing undid the effectiveness of his penetrative runs.

Without Keita Suzuki patrolling the center of the park, Vissel’s Kim Nam Il had free license to claim his territory, and “The Vacuum Cleaner” lived up to his nickname as he cleaned house in midfield. Things improved for Urawa after the interval as Umesaki and Tadaaki Hirakawa surged down the flanks, and a Hajime Hosogai snap shot midway through the second half almost brought the teams level.

The pressure was all coming from Reds, and a newfound composure and fluency allowed them to lacerate Kobe’s defense seemingly at will.

But the visitors’ defense held firm, and after Yuichiro Nagai missed the target with a free-kick in the 88th minute, the visitors rode the storm to take the victory and send Urawa spinning into an even deeper slump.

Engels, however, is confident he can turn the team around.

“I like to work with the team,” he said. “I don’t say I need time to bring results, but I have confidence that every day we are working on the pitch and I think I can bring the team to a higher level.”

Ataliba lifts Sanga

Dragan Stojkovic tasted defeat for the first time as manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight as his side went down 1-0 at home to Kyoto Sanga on Thursday in Group A play. Substitute Ataliba grabbed the winner 11 minutes from time.