Cerezo Osaka manager Levir Culpi believes his team is capable of challenging for the J. League title this season, but the Brazilian wishes former protege and current Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa was still around to help him.
Culpi returned to Cerezo for a third stint midway through last year’s campaign, rejoining the club just eight months after stepping down when replacement Sergio Soares’ brief tenure ended in dismissal. Cerezo’s season began promisingly enough before descending into a relegation dogfight, and even Culpi’s return was not enough to prompt a change in fortunes with survival remaining elusive until the final day.
With the 59-year-old now firmly back in the saddle, however, confidence is running high ahead of Saturday’s J. League opener at home to Albirex Niigata. Culpi admits his decision to answer Cerezo’s SOS last August could easily have backfired, but having spent the previous five years at the club, familiarity gave him a natural advantage.
“I was a little bit worried about coming back,” he said. “It was a risk, but I knew the players and I thought we would be OK. It was something of a risk, but I was confident we could stay in the first division.
“This year we expect to win Cerezo’s first title. Cerezo have never won a title and we want to win one this year. We have three trophies to aim for, but the J. League title is the one that we really want.”
The coming season should at least be free of the obstacles that hindered Cerezo last year, with the London Olympics in particular placing a heavy strain on the club’s resources. Soares lost practically his entire first-choice midfield for a month with Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takahiro Ogihara and Hotaru Yamaguchi representing Japan and Kim Bo Kyung called up for South Korea, leaving the team short-handed as others carried on unaffected.
“The problem was that we lost many players during the J. League season,” said Culpi. “For example, the Olympic Games. Cerezo had many players in that tournament, and they had to go to another country to play in it. Sendai and Hiroshima didn’t lose any players. They played all the games for their clubs.”
While Ogihara and Yamaguchi returned from London to help Culpi in the battle against relegation, however, Kiyotake and Kim left to further their careers in Europe. Cerezo have acquired a reputation as one of Japan’s premier exporters of talent in recent years with Kagawa and Takashi Inui also making a splash overseas, but Culpi would prefer to hang on to their services for longer.
“It’s a big problem for Cerezo Osaka,” he said. “The players go out too early. Like Inui, like Kagawa — if they stay at Cerezo for five years then almost certainly you can get a title. If you have Kiyotake, Shinji, Inui, Kim, then you have a good team. But it’s a lesson, and maybe now Cerezo are aware of this.”
Having given Kagawa his break as an 18-year-old, Culpi is in a unique position to judge his former pupil’s progress. The attacking midfielder is still finding his feet at United after two blistering years in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, but Culpi believes his talents would be better suited elsewhere.
“I don’t feel good, because for me Shinji is a player who should be in Spain, Germany or Italy,” he said. “I don’t like English football. I don’t like it because there are no English teams. Chelsea and Manchester United are two international teams, and they use too many high balls and rely on power too much.
“Shinji would be better off in Germany or with a team like Barcelona or Real Madrid, where technique is the most important thing. He can play, but he needs time.”
Regardless of which league he plays in, Culpi is proud of Kagawa’s achievements.
“He is at one of the best teams in the world, so it’s a good feeling for me,” he said. “I hope he can do even better than he is doing now. It’s not a surprise for me. I noticed that he was special, so for me it’s normal. The first time I saw him I talked with my staff and said that he was good.”