KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Kashiwa Reysol striker Masato Kudo admits his No. 1 target for the season is to win the Asian Champions League, but that does not mean he is about to give up on the J. League title.
Reysol beat Australia’s Central Coast Mariners 3-0 in Asia’s premier club competition last Tuesday to set up a last-16 clash with South Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors on May 15 and 22, finishing the first round unbeaten while Japan’s three other representatives all failed to progress past the group stage.
If only Kashiwa’s domestic situation looked as promising. The 2011 champions currently sit 11th in the J. League table after opening the season with three wins, one draw and four defeats, and with second-place Yokohama F. Marinos next up to play on Monday, Kudo knows time is running out to make an impact at home as well as abroad.
“I don’t think our results in the J. League and the ACL are related,” the 22-year-old said at Kashiwa’s training ground late last week. “Of course there is tiredness from playing in the ACL, but the buzz we get from winning outweighs that. We have to get results in both the J. League and the ACL. If we don’t do well in the J. League, we won’t be able to qualify for next year’s ACL.
“Marinos are doing well around the top of the league, but while we respect them, we are at home and we have to beat them to start climbing the table. As for me personally, it’s my birthday on Monday and I want to score a birthday goal.”
While Kudo may dream of continental domination, however, recent history suggests the odds are not in Reysol’s favor. Only one Japanese team has reached the ACL quarterfinals in the past three seasons, and after losing 3-2 to eventual winners Ulsan Hyundai in the second round last year, Kudo knows firsthand how tough the competition can be.
“Teams from other countries in Asia have really raised their level,” he said. “Japan is the top Asian country in the FIFA rankings, but you can’t use that as a reference point. The ACL is a very difficult competition. The crowds at away games make a lot of noise, and you can feel that they really want to beat the Japanese teams.
“Last year was a good experience even though we couldn’t get past the last 16. This year we are the only team left representing Japan, so we want to rise to the challenge.”
If Kudo can maintain his impressive early-season form, Reysol will certainly be in with a chance. The Tokyo native has scored six J. League goals to go with three in the ACL, and if the manner in which he took his second in Reysol’s 3-3 draw with Nagoya Grampus last month was anything to go by — dribbling past Marcus Tulio Tanaka before rifling home a shot — more are sure to follow.
“Until now a lot of my goals had just been about getting the final touch, but this year I have been able to score more from dribbling like the one I scored against Nagoya,” said Kudo. “This year there have been a lot more occasions where I just head straight for goal. My second goal against Grampus, against a quality player like Tulio, gave me a lot of confidence.”
Kudo finished last season as Reysol’s top scorer with 13 goals, but his improvement since then has not gone unnoticed by the club’s coaching staff.
“Kudo’s job is to score goals, and this year he has put a lot of effort into achieving that,” said coach Masami Ihara. “He really understands how to play his position effectively and how to put the manager’s tactics into practice. Defensively and offensively, he contributes a lot to the team.
“He has also improved his technique and his movement, how to draw defenders and how to link up with his teammates. As he plays more matches and scores more goals, he grows as a player all the time.”
And with the games coming thick and fast over the next few weeks, Kudo will have ample opportunity to continue that progress. Monday’s clash with Marinos is the first of seven fixtures Reysol have scheduled for May, but if Kudo ends the year with a trophy in his hands, the effort will all have been worth it.
“We don’t have much time between games, so we have to make sure we get the most out of the time we do have off,” he said. “When we don’t have games, we try to relax. I think that’s the best way to concentrate and prepare for the games ahead.
“Of course everyone here wants to win the J. League, but last year it was very frustrating for us to lose in the last 16 of the ACL, so we want to put that right by winning it this year. We want to show Asia the strength of the J. League and the strength of Kashiwa Reysol.”