SAITAMA – Urawa Reds head into Saturday’s Nabisco Cup final against Kashima Antlers looking for a rare moment of joy in an otherwise troubled season, but midfielder Naoki Yamada admits the specter of relegation is casting a large shadow over the occasion.
Reds take on Antlers at National Stadium in search of their first trophy since winning the Asian Champions League in 2007, evoking memories of the days when the Saitama side was a regular at the historic old ground with cup-final appearances in every year from 2002 to 2006.
But just one glance at the current J. League first division table is enough to bring reality sharply back into focus. Only a 2-1 win over Yokohama F. Marinos last weekend lifted Urawa out of the relegation places two points clear of Ventforet Kofu, and with four games of the season left to play, Yamada knows Saturday’s Nabisco Cup showpiece is not where his club’s priorities lie.
“It’s normal to feel more nervous when you’re playing on the big stage of a final, but we’re caught up in a relegation battle even if people say we’re too big a club to go down,” the 21-year-old said at Urawa’s training ground earlier this week. “It feels more comfortable going into a cup final than a league game.
“We’re in a bad situation in the J. League, so hopefully if we win on Saturday it can also help us turn things around in the league. For me it would be my first-ever trophy, so wherever I play throughout the rest of my career it would be something that stays with me.”
Reds will, however, take the field without the man who led them to the final, with the club last week firing manager Zeljko Petrovic after he abruptly announced his intention to quit at the end of the season without telling Urawa officials first.
Former youth team manager Takafumi Hori has been handed the reins, and Yamada believes the change could be a positive one.
“People who know youth football know who Hori is, but others might not,” said Yamada, who played under the 44-year-old in Urawa’s youth team. “I don’t want to say how things have changed since he took over. Everyone is saying that it’s a risk to change managers at this point of the season, but by the same token I think it can unite us and get us all pulling in the same direction.”
Not that Yamada has an ax to grind with his former boss, however. Petrovic took over at the start of the season after stints at clubs in the Netherlands, Portugal, England and Germany, but Yamada believes not even the Montenegrin’s experience as a player with Urawa from 1997 to 2000 could prepare him for the realities of the modern Japanese game.
“Petrovic came to Japan not really knowing much about the J. League, and for the first half of the year he wanted us to play the kind of football they play in the Netherlands,” he said. “We couldn’t pick up many points during that time, and so gradually he started changing to a Japanese way of doing things. But the first half of the year just took too big a toll.”
Given his history of injuries, simply being on the pitch represents a victory for Yamada. A brilliant debut season in 2009 saw the 166-cm midfielder win his first international cap after only a handful of club appearances, but injury soon ruled him out for the rest of the campaign before a broken leg suffered while playing for Japan against Yemen in January 2010 cut short his comeback and kept him out for practically the entire year.
“All through the time recovering from that injury I was thinking there was nothing that could be done about it, but there are still some lingering feelings of regret,” he said. “I think about what might have been if I hadn’t got that injury. But really there’s no point in looking back. It’s better to look forward and use the injury to drive you on to achieve things in the future.”
Whether for club or country, Yamada’s future is likely to include teammate Genki Haraguchi. The pair came through the Urawa youth system together before establishing themselves as first-team regulars in 2009, and Yamada credits their close understanding for bringing out the best in each other.
“I feel like I can rely on Haraguchi like no one else,” he said of the 20-year-old winger, who made his international debut last month. “His strong point is dribbling, but if you do that on your own then sometimes the opponent will stop you. I know where he wants me to be on the pitch to help him out, and he relies on me and vice versa. We cancel out each others’ negatives.”
If only Urawa’s negatives could be canceled out so easily. The 2006 champions have four league games left to save their season regardless of Saturday’s Nabisco Cup result, and Yamada is appalled by the prospect of failing.
“Urawa Reds are known as Japan’s ‘big club,’ and for the image of Japanese football it would be bad to see Reds in the second division,” he said. “Reds have a lot of good young players who have grown up here, and the minimum requirement is that we keep the club in the first division.
“For me personally it would be bad for my development as a player to go down to J2. We can’t let the team go down. We have to do everything to keep it up.”