SAITAMA – Urawa Reds would probably prefer not to have the added pressure of a local derby as they look to get their J. League title challenge back on track against Omiya Ardija on Saturday, but it will take more than just hostile fans to faze striker Shinzo Koroki.
Urawa takes on Omiya having slipped to third in the table with seven games of the season remaining, trailing leaders Yokohama F. Marinos by four points and Sanfrecce Hiroshima by two after taking only two points from their last three outings.
And with Ardija scrambling to salvage something from a once-promising campaign — plummeting from first place to ninth over an acrimonious summer — tensions are likely to run high when the teams take the field at Saitama Stadium.
But after crossing the divide to join Urawa from sworn enemies Kashima Antlers at the start of the season, Koroki knows that rivalry is simply a matter of perspective.
“This is a match that means a lot to both sets of fans, and hopefully we’ll be able to meet our supporters’ expectations and take three points,” the 27-year-old said at Urawa’s training ground earlier this week. “We lost to Omiya earlier in the season, and that was the first time I had been on the losing team since I joined this club.
“I didn’t know that the Saitama derby meant so much to the fans, but I really felt it in that game. Of course Omiya have a lot of good players and play good football, and there’s no way of telling who’s going to win. The most important thing is to go out there with the mind set not to lose.”
Omiya put its name in the record books for the longest unbeaten streak in J. League history after a 1-0 home win over Reds in April, but the good times in the orange half of Saitama have long since dried up. Ardija followed their record 21-game run with an eight-match losing skid that cost manager Zdenko Verdenik his job, but Koroki refuses to believe that a good team has simply turned bad overnight.
“They have changed their manager and their style of play, but they still have the same players,” said the 175-cm Koroki, who has scored nine league goals so far this season. “They still have two very good strikers, and we have to be careful of them.
“But I think there will be times when we have the ball for long periods, and if we can take our chances when we are on top, I think we can win.”
For all the hype surrounding Saturday’s derby, however, Koroki could be forgiven for having one eye on a fixture further down the line. Reds travel to Kashima to face Antlers on Oct. 19, and after scoring in Urawa’s 3-1 win when the two sides met in May — and kissing his new team’s badge in celebration — Koroki is hoping for a calmer 90 minutes this time around.
“Personally, Antlers are the team I least want to lose against,” said Koroki, who won three league titles, two Emperor’s Cups and two Nabisco Cups in eight years at Kashima. “Of course it’s also an important game between two teams high in the table, and hopefully I can keep my emotions in check.
“In the last game I was so fired up that I couldn’t stay calm and play my normal game. I want to keep my cool next time. I wasn’t intending to kiss the badge — my emotions just got the better of me and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just couldn’t stop myself.”
Koroki certainly managed to put his feelings to one side when leaving Antlers to join bitter rival Urawa over the winter. Bad blood between the two sets of supporters means that very few players have traveled the same path over the years, but Koroki insists his desire to play and improve was the only thing on his mind.
“I’m sure he must have had a lot of trouble thinking it over, but he is very strong-willed,” said Urawa defender Daisuke Nasu. “That aspect of his character is greater than worrying about playing for a rival team. He made his decision based on what was best for him, and I think it has turned out to be a very good one.”
Koroki knows that anything that happens outside the pitch is beyond his control, but the striker also acknowledges how powerful a crowd can be.
“There is no rivalry between the players,” he said. “When I was at Kashima and we played Reds, the supporters really didn’t want to lose. We felt their expectations, but there was never any rivalry between us as players.
“The supporters here are something special, and it’s not easy to meet their expectations. I think it’s good for me to play for a team that demands nothing less than the title. I’ve only scored nine goals this season, and when the team has struggled I haven’t been able to come through. That shows how far I still have to go.”