For all his 37 international appearances and iconic status as Kawasaki Frontale’s poster boy, Kengo Nakamura’s career has never quite escaped the shadow of his more illustrious contemporaries.
When the end-of-season awards are doled out, however, he may finally get his chance to take center stage.
Nakamura has been a mainstay for club and country for several years now, making his international debut in then-manager Ivica Osim’s post-World Cup shakeup and starting each of Japan’s games at the 2007 Asian Cup.
The 28-year-old has also featured in the J. League team of the season for the past three years, but top billing has always escaped his grasp.
This year, that may change.
Nakamura has been instrumental in Frontale’s attempt to hunt down league-leading Kashima Antlers, lacerating opposing defenses with his touch and vision and driving forward to feed the insatiable appetite of strikers Juninho and Chong Tese.
Nakamura’s slight frame belies a fierce shot and surprising strength on the ball, and Kawasaki’s run to the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League also offers the midfielder a wider stage to show his talent.
If international teammate Yasuhito Endo could claim the ACL’s top player accolade last season, there seems no reason why Nakamura cannot emulate the achievement.
Having to live with the “other Nakamura” tag is an inevitable consequence of lining up alongside Espanyol namesake Shunsuke in Takeshi Okada’s national team, and the emergence of Keisuke Honda means the Kawasaki player can expect little more than a utility role at the World Cup in South Africa.
Frontale’s chances of overhauling Kashima’s lead look equally daunting, but Nakamura has proven he is not to be underestimated.
Even if his club finishes the season empty-handed, don’t be surprised if he walks away with a trophy under his arm.
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Another contender for player of the year, FC Tokyo’s Naohiro Ishikawa, has seen his bid to finish the season as the first Japanese top scorer since 2002 waylaid by an injury that has kept him out of his side’s last two matches.
Ishikawa has notched 11 goals already this season, but his teammates were unable to find the net in his absence against Yokohama F. Marinos and Montedio Yamagata.
Tokyo manager Hiroshi Jofuku nonetheless remains confident his side can cope.
“If every player — not just Ishikawa — plays to the best of their ability, then I’m confident we can score goals,” Jofuku said at the club’s training ground earlier this week.
“There’s a big difference between making chances and actually getting the ball into the net, but without Ishikawa the players are determined to get the job done. If we approach this in a positive manner we can turn a bad situation into a plus and score goals.
“There are no easy games, but heading into autumn we can’t afford to drop points. We can’t afford to take just one point from a game — we need to be taking all three.”
Jofuku, however, is in no hurry to rush his star man back into action.
“There’s a risk of his injury flaring up again and we don’t want it to end up getting worse rather than better,” he said.
“He needs to be in top condition before he comes back, and we need to be sure of that. We would like to have him back soon, but we’re looking at it day to day and it’s a difficult thing to judge.”
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Size, they say, isn’t everything. And for Japan’s biggest club, Urawa Reds, a summer of cataclysmic results on the field and discontent off it certainly suggests bigger does not always mean better.
But the faltering Saitama giants can take some consolation in a list of the 50 best-supported clubs in the world recently compiled by U.K. magazine World Soccer.
Going by average attendance, Urawa’s 47,609 puts the club in 19th place, ahead of heavyweights Atletico Madrid (22nd), Liverpool (24th), Valencia (36th) and Roma (37th).
Albirex Niigata also made the cut in 46th place, with the Hokuriku club’s average of 34,490 edging it ahead of West Ham United, PSV Eindhoven and Fiorentina.
Manchester United topped the list with 75,304, closely followed by Real Madrid (74,895) and Barcelona (73,913).
Eight of the top 20 spots, however, are occupied by German clubs. Even if Reds’ close relationship with the Bundesliga hasn’t yielded as many trophies as they would like, there are worse economic models they could follow.
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Quotable: “I don’t want to talk about tactics, because if I do every team will know everything about Grampus.”
— Nagoya manager Dragan Stojkovic declining to talk shop after his side’s 2-0 win against JEF United Chiba this week.