Urawa Reds manager Volker Finke declared his side was “moving in the right direction” after Sunday’s 3-0 hammering of Kawasaki Frontale, and while evidence on the pitch certainly backed him up, after last season’s astonishing summer collapse it might be wiser to reserve judgment.
Urawa sits in first place after seven rounds of a campaign that has so far followed exactly the same trajectory as 2009. Then, as now, Finke’s side started with a comprehensive defeat away to champions Kashima Antlers before a tentative home win over FC Tokyo laid the foundations for increased confidence and a steady rise up the table.
But it is what came next that the German must avoid repeating this time round. Reds lost to bottom-of-the-table Oita Trinita on July 18, beginning a run of seven straight defeats that included a 4-1 home thrashing by Kashiwa Reysol and a 3-2 loss to Vissel Kobe featuring a goal conceded after 18 seconds.
Morale plummeted along with league position, and although the ship was turned around in time to secure a sixth-place finish, the damage had already been done. Whether the scars have completely healed is the question Urawa must now answer.
Sunday’s win gave the strongest hint yet that Finke’s side is ready to move on, digging deep to deny Frontale a way back into the game at 2-0 and displaying killer instinct to score a third.
The evergreen Nobuhisa Yamada has proved his versatility and intelligence in making sure Marcus Tulio Tanaka has not been missed in central defense, while Burkinabe flyer Wilfried Sanou looks an excellent addition at left back.
The team seems fitter and hungrier than last season, and as long as Finke can continue to squeeze the potential from the likes of Robson Ponte, Edmilson and Tatsuya Tanaka, Reds can look to the future with confidence.
There will no doubt be bumps along the way, but after the turbulence of last season Urawa should be better equipped to handle it.
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Yoshito Okubo is not having much luck this year.
The Vissel Kobe striker began 2010 with criticism ringing in his ears after a string of insipid displays for the national team at the East Asian Football Championship, before leaving the tournament on a stretcher following a knee injury against South Korea.
With his rehabilitation complete, Okubo returned to action for his club against Vegalta Sendai on Saturday. Shortly after coming on as a substitute, however, the 27-year-old caught a stray arm in the face and left the field with a broken nose.
“It’s just my nose, so it’s fine,” he said. “It’s not something that means I can’t play. I’d rather have this than a leg injury.”
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Much was expected of Shinji Kagawa in his debut season in the first division, and the Cerezo Osaka youngster has not disappointed so far.
Kagawa hit his fourth and fifth goals of the campaign against Shonan Bellmare on Sunday to help his team to a 2-1 win, joining Gamba Osaka’s Shoki Hirai on top of the scoring charts in the process.
Yutaka Tahara thought he had earned Bellmare a point when he hit a 91st-minute equalizer, but Kagawa would have the last word before the final whistle sounded.
“Until the goal I hadn’t really done much in the second half and I hadn’t really been taking shots,” he said. “I wanted to score with a shot and I knew that time was running out, so I just went for it and thankfully it went in.
“When I saw that there were five minutes of injury time I thought we would have enough time to create one or two chances.”
Quotable: “It’s natural that the supporters were booing. It’s proof that they are serious about aiming for the title.”
— Marcus Tulio Tanaka faces up to the heightened expectation at Nagoya Grampus after conceding a last-minute equalizer in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Albirex Niigata.