Urawa Reds manager Gert Engels is confident his resurgent side can maintain its push up the J. League table when unbeaten champions Kashima Antlers visit Saitama Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
After a dreadful start to the season which saw Reds lose their first two league games, leading to the dismissal of manager Holger Osieck, the Saitama club has picked up the pieces under Engels, taking maximum points from its last three games.
Kashima, still riding a winning streak that stretches from September of last year, will test Engels’ management skills to the limit, but the German is not allowing himself to get swept up in the hype surrounding the first clash of the season between Japan’s two big guns.
“It is a big game for everybody,” he said. “It is the unbeaten No. 1 and champion against Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium.”
Antlers have a perfect 15 points from their first five games, but Engels believes Reds will provide a far sterner test than the teams they have faced so far.
“I don’t want to talk too much about it, but you can see that from their opponents in the first five games, four were teams at the bottom of the table,” he said.
“Of course they are strong, and that is why they are No. 1, but every day we are becoming stronger.”
Reds climbed to joint-fourth place in the table after five rounds, but the wins that got them there have not come easy.
The two most recent, against Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse, both came after trailing 1-0 at halftime.
“On one hand, it is not good that you need to come from behind because it means you have given a goal away,” Engels said.
“But on the other hand it shows you have the mental strength to be able to do it. In football, it doesn’t often happen that a team comes back from a goal down. We did it in our last two games, but I don’t like to provoke fate.”
Engels has largely stuck with the team he inherited from Osieck, but he has raised eyebrows by using central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka as a holding midfielder.
Tulio has scored two goals in his new role, and Engels suggests he may well make the switch permanent.
“It is not a big surprise,” he said. “It is not like you play someone from defense in attack or on the wing. I had my reasons and he did very well in the first game and then the games after that, so the chances are he will play in the same position.”