SAITAMA — Urawa Reds striker Tatsuya Tanaka gave national team manager Takeshi Okada food for thought as he helped his side get back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over FC Tokyo on Saturday night.
Tanaka turned in a lively performance in his first league appearance since April, setting up strike partner Edmilson for the opening goal just four minutes in, before making way for Yuichiro Nagai as he succumbed to a thigh problem early in the second half.
With Japan’s strikers misfiring in World Cup qualifying matches, the 25-year-old staked his claim for a place with Reds manager Gert Engels dropping Naohiro Takahara for the first time this season.
But the scoreline at Saitama Stadium flattered Reds, who were outplayed for much of the match by a well-organized FC Tokyo. A 90th-minute goal from Nagai finally made the game safe after some nervous moments, and Engels was relieved to put an end to a losing streak of five games in all competitions.
“It was important,” he admitted. “I didn’t doubt what we were doing and what we were trying to do, but football is about results. Today we were happy to deliver a result.”
Engels acknowledged Tanaka’s starring role, but warned Urawa’s opponents that the best is yet to come.
“He is going to improve physically because he hasn’t played many competitive games,” he said. “He was a regular but now I think he can become a key player. He can only become better. I only hope he can stay injury-free.”
FC Tokyo manager Hiroshi Jofuku also paid tribute to Tanaka’s performance.
“With Tanaka starting today, with his quality in 50-50 situations, the goal was a turning point of the game,” he said. “It is very hard to concede a goal at that point of the match, and it’s psychologically difficult to fight back. We played very hard for 90 minutes, so this is a very painful defeat.”
Tadaaki Hirakawa played the perfect ball for Tanaka to latch onto, and the striker laid the ball back to Edmilson, who duly dispatched the ball past the helpless Hitoshi Shiota.
But the visitors put the early setback to the back of their minds as they fought against the red tide. A great pass from Sota Hirayama gave FC Tokyo the chance to level the score immediately, but with Cabore closing in on goal, Satoshi Horinouchi bundled the Brazilian striker to the ground inside the penalty area. No foul, said the referee.
With luck going their way, Reds began to dominate, and Ponte should have doubled their lead when he fired over the bar in the 18th minute. Tanaka went even closer less than a minute later, forcing a tremendous save from Shiota before the goalkeeper performed even more heroics to deny Horinouchi from the resulting corner.
Edmilson put the ball in the net again only to see the linesman’s flag raised, but gradually Tokyo began to establish a foothold, with Hirayama showing invention and guile, if not pace, in attack. Yohei Kajiyama was also beginning to pull the strings in midfield, and Yasuyuki Konno almost converted Tokyo’s resurgence into hard currency as he headed against the post from a corner deep into first-half injury time.
A murmur of disapproval rumbled around the stadium as Nagai replaced Tanaka with 10 minutes of the second half gone, but with Tokyo pinning Reds back in their own half, the 29-year-old’s hard work and solid tackling eased the burden on his defensive teammates.
Play was passing Urawa’s Marcus Tulio Tanaka by as Naotake Hanyu and Emerson dominated the midfield, and Reds goalkeeper Ryota Tsuzuki had to stretch to tip substitute Nobuo Kawaguchi’s looping header onto the post in the 71st minute.
The visitors kept up the pressure as they desperately went in search of an equalizer, but Nagai put an end to Tokyo’s challenge in the 90th minute as picked up Horinouchi’s through-ball, held off Hideki Sahara and finished well to make the game safe for Urawa.