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FC Tokyo’s Watanabe embracing challenges he faces

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

FC Tokyo striker Kazuma Watanabe is excited to be leading a new wave of Japanese goal scorers in the race for this season’s J. League golden boot, but that does not mean he is about to sit back and let his countrymen beat him to the prize.

Watanabe was on target twice in Tokyo’s 2-0 win over Oita Trinita last weekend to take his tally to 14 goals for the season, lifting him to the top of a scoring chart in which only three of the leading 12 players are imports.

Watanabe’s goals have helped Tokyo climb to sixth place in the league table heading into Saturday’s game against Kawasaki Frontale, but with the likes of Yoshito Okubo, Hisato Sato and Yohei Toyoda breathing down his neck, the 27-year-old knows there can be no let-up if he wants to be crowned king of the marksmen come the end of the season.

“This year there aren’t so many foreign players at the top of the scoring chart, and the impression I get is that the Japanese strikers have been doing very well,” Watanabe said at Tokyo’s training ground earlier this week. “Being top of the scoring chart is excellent motivation for me, and I want to keep it going.

“There are some foreign players like Marquinhos who are scoring lots of goals, but the defenders have been doing a good job of stopping them. On top of that, the Japanese strikers have been taking their chances.

“Last year was my first year at FC Tokyo, and I think everything that I gained from that experience is coming out in my game this year.”

Watanabe’s rise to prominence has come as something of a surprise this season, with the Waseda University graduate initially expected to spend time on the bench after Tokyo signed national team striker Tadanari Lee on a six-month loan from English side Southampton.

Instead Lee left the club in June having failed to dislodge Watanabe from the starting lineup, and the former Yokohama F. Marinos man has not looked back since.

“The club bringing in another player in my position was a big incentive for me,” said Watanabe. “Having a new rival keeps you on your toes, but rather than worrying about anyone else, I just concentrated on doing the best I could personally.

“I’m happy that I’ve been in the starting lineup all season, but it’s not something that you can just feel satisfied with. You have to keep producing results.”

Watanabe’s 14 goals so far this season are already a career best for a player who was named J. League newcomer of the year in his debut season with Marinos in 2009, but Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic insists there is much more to the 182-cm, 77-kg forward’s game than just scoring.

“There are many reasons why Kazuma has improved this year, but I think the biggest is that he has changed his attitude,” said Popovic. “Now Kazuma is not only a goal scorer — Kazuma is a football player who scores goals.

“He works incredibly hard for the team. Everybody sees his goals, but it’s also his defending — he is the first line of defense for us when we don’t have the ball — and how he moves and makes space for other players. Kazuma is now a more complete player. Before he was only a goal scorer. Now he is an important piece of the team.”

But while Popovic is happy with Watanabe’s progress, national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni appears less convinced. The Italian left Watanabe out of his squad of exclusively domestic-based players for last month’s East Asian Cup victory in South Korea, but the striker believes the team’s success can inspire the entire J. League with the World Cup on the horizon next summer.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be called up,” said Watanabe. “I would have liked to have been picked, but it was the manager’s choice and there were other players doing well besides me.

“A lot of players in the national team are based overseas, so for Japan to win the East Asian Cup with a squad made up of only J. League players proves that we can do it.

“I think it will have a big effect on the players who are working hard in the J. League, and that goes for me, too.”

And if international recognition and an outside chance of the title with Tokyo are not big enough goals to get Watanabe’s competitive juices flowing, perhaps a little family rivalry will tip the balance. Older brother and Omiya Ardija midfielder Daigo has played his part in steering the Saitama side into fourth place in the table, but with Tokyo only six points behind and 15 games left to play, Watanabe Jr. is not ready to accept second best just yet.

“It makes me very happy to see him doing well,” he said of Daigo, who has appeared in every league game for Ardija this season, scoring twice.

“He’s my brother and a rival that I really don’t want to lose to. He’s doing well at the moment, so it spurs me on to make sure he doesn’t beat me.”