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FC Tokyo’s Lee not lacking confidence as he seeks return to national team

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Tadanari Lee is determined to use his loan move from Southampton to FC Tokyo as a springboard to return to the national team, but club manager Ranko Popovic has warned his new striker not to try too hard to impress.

Lee joined the capital-city side ahead of the current J. League season after struggling to make his mark at Southampton, with injuries stalling his progress in 13 months on England’s south coast.

Now, after rejoining the club that raised him through its youth system, the 27-year-old has the chance to prove himself all over again. Lee scored his first goal for Tokyo in last week’s 4-2 Nabisco Cup win over Kashima Antlers, but with his loan spell set to expire at the end of June, time to make an impact is limited.

“I came here to do well and get myself back into the national team,” Lee said at Tokyo’s training ground earlier this week. “I scored my first goal in my fifth game here, but one goal is not enough. I have to get into the groove of scoring, and this is just the start line.

“I don’t know what is going to happen at the end of June, but I didn’t come back to Japan with the mind-set of just being here for six months. My way of thinking is that I am here for the whole season. If Southampton tell me to go back then, I have to, and if they want to sell me to FC Tokyo or another team, then they will. As a football player there are some things that are beyond your control.”

Having made only seven appearances for Southampton after joining from Sanfrecce Hiroshima in January last year, Lee’s desire to make up for lost time is understandable. But while the injuries that denied him a consistent run of games in England may have healed, Popovic cautions against moving too fast.

“He has to be patient because he has come to Japan after a year without games, and there is pressure because the media here think he can fly,” said Tokyo’s manager. “He needs time like everybody else. Also he must control himself a little bit and calm down. He wants to score a goal with wild desire.

“If I don’t put pressure on him, why does he put pressure on himself? It’s not normal because it’s too heavy for him. If you enjoy what you do, then goals will follow.”

Goals may not have been a feature of Lee’s stint in England — one memorable effort against Derby County notwithstanding — but the 182-cm striker does not feel his time at St. Mary’s was wasted.

“I played in the Championship, F.A. Cup and League Cup, and I was involved in the promotion race, which is not something that everyone can experience,” he said. “In training, the level was very high because Southampton are a Premier League club, so it was good for me and I grew as a player.

“I got injured in March last year and was out for about nine months, and when I came back I was only 80 percent fit, which was the biggest problem. If I was 100 percent fit like I am now, I’m confident I would be able to get into the team.”

Lee earned his move to Southampton after scoring 50 goals in 178 J. League games with Kashiwa Reysol and Sanfrecce, but life in England’s second tier was a far cry from what he was used to.

“The style of football is very different,” he said. “In Japan the buildup is very slow, but over there it’s like basketball — end to end with speed and power. I like that kind of football.

“We had Rickie Lambert in our team, and he’s a typical English center-forward. He’s powerful in holding the ball up and able to finish well. Japanese football doesn’t really have that type of player, so to be able to play with him was good for my football education.”

With the center-forward position still up for grabs in Japan’s national team, Lee had every reason to take notice. Manager Alberto Zaccheroni has alternated between Ryoichi Maeda, Mike Havenaar and Keisuke Honda during Lee’s injury-enforced absence, but with less than three months to go until the Confederations Cup in Brazil, Tokyo’s new man sees an opportunity.

“My biggest goal is to get into the squad for the Confederations Cup,” said Lee, whose unforgettable extra-time volley won the 2011 Asian Cup final for Japan against Australia. “We have Maeda and Havenaar as strikers, but I think I have qualities that they don’t. I believe I can bring something to the national team.

“We are all different types of player. Mike has height, Maeda is good at keeping the ball, and I’m good at getting in behind defenders. The main striker has been changing a lot recently, but I want to show what I can do at the Confederations Cup and make the position mine for the World Cup.”

Assuming, that is, that Japan gets there. Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Jordan leaves Zaccheroni’s side yet to guarantee its place at next year’s global spectacle, but there was little doubt in Lee’s mind as he watched the game on TV.

“I was thinking that if I had been playing, we definitely would have won,” he said with a smile.