SAITAMA – Urawa Reds have suffered too many false dawns in recent years to get carried away by their bright start to the J. League season, but midfielder Yuki Abe is not about to sit back and let local rivals Omiya Ardija pull the plug in Saturday’s Saitama derby.
Urawa escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth after finishing one place above the drop zone last year, but six games into the new campaign sees the 2006 champions in far ruder health. Four wins and a draw since an opening-day defeat to Sanfrecce Hiroshima have lifted Reds into second in the table, with only three points separating Mihailo Petrovic’s side from league leaders Vegalta Sendai.
But if confidence is high ahead of Saturday’s visit to Nack5 Stadium, so too is expectation. Urawa’s supporters spelled out their desire for a derby win with a banner message at the club’s training ground this week, and Abe is determined not to let them go home disappointed.
“When you have a derby it’s a battle between the players and between the fans, though not literally, of course,” the 30-year-old said on Thursday. “It’s important to take that feeling into the game. It’s only one game, but if you do well it can have a big impact on the games that follow.
“We’ve only played six matches so far this season, so we can’t talk about anything yet. The most important thing is to keep our form going. Only if we do that can we look back and say we had a good start to the season.”
Having returned to the club for a second spell in January following an 18-month stint with Leicester City in England’s second tier, Abe’s caution is understandable. Reds have not lifted a trophy since winning the 2007 Asian Champions League in the midfielder’s first season after joining from JEF United Chiba, and subsequent attempts to rekindle the glory days have repeatedly fallen on barren ground.
“The players and the manager are different now, but I think the current team is more united than in the past,” he said. “Everyone is pulling in the same direction and fighting for each other. I think we’re much more of a team now.
“I paid attention to what the club was doing when I was away, and I thought I could do something to help. I played in England for a year and a half and I wanted to come back and show the fans how I have improved. But there’s no point in me coming back if I can’t make myself useful. There is pressure on me, but I just have to get on with it.”
Abe may have been unable to help Leicester win a place in the Premier League, but his time in England was anything but a failure. The Chiba native made 59 appearances, scored two goals and became a crowd favorite at the King Power Stadium, but occasional spells on the sidelines proved to be just as valuable.
“There were times when I was in the starting lineup and times when I came off the bench, but also times when I wasn’t playing,” he said. “During those times I had to think about how to keep myself in good shape and keep my confidence up.
“Now that I’m back in Japan, I understand what it’s like for the players who aren’t in the team. I can use my experience to strike the right mood and help them out, so it has been useful.”
Several big names were recruited to aid Leicester’s promotion push during Abe’s time at the club, but none bigger than former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Swede lasted only a year in the dugout before being fired in October 2011, but his warmth and compassion left a permanent impression on the players.
“First of all, when I heard he was coming I couldn’t believe it,” Abe said of the former Benfica, Sampdoria and Lazio manager. “He was very kind toward me, and his English was much easier to understand than the others.
“I talked with him right after the March 11 earthquake and told him there was going to be a charity match in Japan, and he told me to go back straight away. He showed me a lot of consideration.”
Family reasons were ultimately behind Abe’s decision to leave Leicester, but his achievements have not been forgotten by the Foxes’ appreciative fans. The midfielder’s hard-working, no-frills style always looked like it would find a good home in the English game, but now it is Urawa that stands to reap the benefits.
“I think there is a difference in the level of effort between England and Japan — what you are prepared to do to score or to get in the team,” he said. “In England you see a lot of goals where a player shoots and it takes a deflection and goes in, but you don’t see that so often in Japan.
“These things happen when you just go for it. I don’t think there is that same level of determination in Japan.”