Nagoya Grampus striker Frode Johnsen admits he is surprised by his side’s challenge for the 2008 J. League title, but is taking nothing for granted as the season moves into its final stretch.
Grampus sits top of the table, one point ahead of nearest challenger Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds and Oita Trinita, in a remarkable turn of fortunes since last season’s disappointing 11th-place finish.
A change of managers during the offseason, with former playing legend Dragan Stojkovic replacing PSV Eindhoven-bound Sef Vergoosen, brought excitement among the fans but uncertainty among players forced to adapt to a new regime.
More question marks surrounded the team in the wake of star midfielder Keisuke Honda’s departure and the arrival of several untested new faces.
Brazilian Magnum was the only signing of note, and Johnsen says the upheaval had tempered expectations at the club.
“I was hoping for the top seven,” the Norwegian striker said. “Of course I didn’t know the new players, but I knew a little bit about Magnum because he played for Kawasaki Frontale.
“Also with the new coach everything was new and it was difficult to say whether we would go up or down in the table.
“Now it shows everything has been good. Now everybody is happy.”
Johnsen is quick to pay tribute to the role Stojkovic has played in Nagoya’s transformation into title-challengers after taking his first coaching job at the club where he starred for seven years in the J. League’s early days.
“It’s of course very exciting and a little bit surprising, but I think the new coach has done a good job and we play with a little more confidence than we did last season,” Johnsen said.
“I think he knew the Japanese mentality, so it was good for the Japanese players. They are more relaxed than last season.
“His training methods are very good. It is not complicated — he keeps it very simple. It is very important to organize the team defensively, because without that you can’t go forward.”
But Johnsen refuses to get carried away by the prospect of winning the first league title in the club’s history.
“We don’t talk about winning the title,” he said. “I think it is very difficult.
“There are three or four very strong teams. But nothing is impossible, and with a bit of luck and some good performances maybe we can win the league.”
Johnsen is less optimistic about his own international chances, however.
The Norwegian won the last of his 33 caps in March 2007, and is not holding out hope that his prolific form in the J. League will persuade manager Age Hareide to give him a recall.
“I’m not in the Norway team at the moment,” Johnsen said. “It is changing from time to time but it is very difficult for me because of the jet lag and the time difference.
“I realized when I went to Japan that it was going to be difficult, so I didn’t think about it at all. I have no expectations.”
Instead, Johnsen remains focused on his club career and the prospect of a first league-winner’s medal. The striker is unsure where his future lies, but is certain the foundations have been laid for Grampus to consolidate the advances it has made this season whether he is still at the club or not.
“I may be staying in Japan, but I don’t know because the club hasn’t decided yet,” he said. “I would maybe like to stay one more year, but I need to know what the situation is soon.
“If we manage to keep the players we have — and we have a lot of good young players — and maybe add some more, then I think the club will stay in the top five in the future.”