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Leandro hopes Reysol can still claim Asian Champions League berth

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Outgoing J. League title-holders Kashiwa Reysol may have seen their crown handed to a new champion last weekend, but midfielder Leandro Domingues is determined to salvage something from the season as it reaches its conclusion on Saturday.

Leandro, last year’s MVP after leading Reysol to the championship on the back of promotion from the second division, could do nothing but watch as Sanfrecce Hiroshima clinched the silverware last Saturday, finally pulling clear of second-place Vegalta Sendai after a title race that passed Kashiwa by.

With champion and runnerup already decided, however, Reysol still have something to play for. Sagan Tosu are in pole position to claim the Asian Champions League-qualifying spot that comes with finishing third, but with Kashiwa trailing by only one point heading into Saturday’s visit to Kashima Antlers — and three other teams still in contention — nothing has been settled yet.

“I thought we would have qualified for the ACL sooner, but we have lost a lot of games that we should have won,” Leandro said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “Qualification depends on Tosu’s result, and we have a difficult game ourselves, but I’m confident that we can get a positive result.

“If you think about the quality we have in this team, we should be higher in the table. The reason we aren’t is that we have had a lot of games where we should have scored but didn’t. Personally I have missed a lot of chances, and that has been very frustrating. Last year, even when we didn’t have many chances to score we still took them. That hasn’t happened this year.”

A knee injury that sidelined Leandro for over a month from early October has not helped Kashiwa’s cause either, but having led his team to two straight wins since returning, the Brazilian is looking to finish the season with a flourish.

“I went from playing in every game to being out for a long time, and that had a big effect on me,” the 29-year-old said. “I’ve been back for two games now and my strength has returned. The team is winning and there is a good atmosphere, and hopefully now that I’ve got some games under my belt I can make a contribution.”

The prize of a place in next season’s ACL is, however, not without its drawbacks. Kashiwa endured a difficult start to this year’s J. League season while trying to juggle continental commitments, and Leandro admits the workload took its toll.

“We had to travel five or six hours to China and then play a J. League game a few days later, and Thailand isn’t close either,” he said of Reysol’s ACL campaign, which ended in a second-round defeat to eventual winners Ulsan Hyundai. “But that can’t be an excuse — we still ran for 90 minutes.

“We played Yokohama F. Marinos in our first J. League game, and we were winning 3-2 before they scored right at the very end. But I don’t want to blame that on the ACL.”

Given that winning the Asian title brings entry into the Club World Cup, Leandro has extra motivation to take it seriously. Reysol reached the semifinals of last year’s global event having qualified as J. League champions, and with Sanfrecce preparing to launch their campaign against Auckland City next Thursday, Leandro warns they must be ready for the spotlight.

“Last year, a lot of people started looking at Japanese football because of what we did at the Club World Cup, and teams will be analyzing Sanfrecce this year as well,” he said. “In Brazil they will be taking a close look at Sanfrecce, but they are a good team and they have a chance of making it through to play Chelsea in the final.

“As the team representing Japan, I hope Sanfrecce can show what they are capable of. It’s a tournament featuring players from all over the world, and I can’t tell you how happy it made me to play in it last year.”

But while Sanfrecce dream of a Dec. 16 showdown against Chelsea, Reysol must content themselves with the Emperor’s Cup as a last chance of silverware this season. Leandro has no problem congratulating the Hiroshima club on its success, but letting it continue next year is another matter altogether.

“Sanfrecce were the most consistent team over the course of the whole season, and they didn’t lose many games in succession,” he said. “I think they were worthy champions.

“I would like to continue playing for Reysol and make a contribution to the club by winning things. I’ve become attached to this team. We’ve missed out on two trophies this year but there is still one left. Then next year and the year after that, I want to help this team win even more.”