KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Kashiwa Reysol may have missed out on Asian Champions League glory this season, but on-loan striker Cleo is confident of redemption in Saturday’s Nabisco Cup final against Urawa Reds.
Kashiwa takes on Urawa at National Stadium looking to salvage something from a season that began with hopes of becoming Japan’s first continental club champion since 2008, only to fall apart in the semifinals with an 8-1 aggregate defeat to Cleo’s Chinese parent club, Guangzhou Evergrande.
But while ACL success may have been Kashiwa’s prime objective, the Chiba side has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket. The Nabisco Cup final offers Cleo the chance to win his first trophy since joining Reysol at the start of the season, and the globe-trotting Brazilian insists last weekend’s 2-1 loss to Urawa in the J. League will count for nothing when the teams line up on Saturday.
“We’re very motivated,” the 28-year-old said at Kashiwa’s training ground earlier this week. “I think the confidence in the team for this game is very high. I hope I can be a champion in my first final here. This is the game of the season for us, so it’s a good chance to win the title.
“Urawa had two opportunities to score in the first 10 minutes last weekend, and they scored two goals. After that we controlled the game. In my opinion we played better. We need to think about that game and take confidence from it, because I think we are ready to win on Saturday.”
But while Kashiwa’s cup form speaks for itself, performances in the J. League have fallen short of expectations. The 2011 champions are currently 11th in the table with four games to play, and Cleo admits the demands of the ACL have taken their toll.
“We focused a lot on the Asian Champions League and we lost a lot of points in the J. League,” said the 185-cm striker. “When we tried to come back and compete in the J. League it was too late. We have played a lot of games, and the team is feeling that. If we were playing for only one or two titles then we would compete for sure.”
Reysol’s season also took a bizarre twist in August when manager Nelsinho offered his resignation after a J. League defeat, only to change his mind and return several days later. The incident suggested a club in turmoil, but Cleo insists it had a galvanizing effect instead.
“It was good for us, because it shook us up and changed our thinking,” he said. “I think we were too relaxed at the time, and when something like that happens it makes you think again about your season and what you want for the future.
“Nelsinho made his decision. The group is very close to him and we tried to get results and give the best for him, but the results didn’t come. Now it’s a good chance, not only for us but for Nelsinho too, to get the title and make people forget about that situation.”
Cleo’s reputation from his time in China, as well as his Champions League pedigree with Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade, had Kashiwa fans expecting big things upon his arrival, but the striker himself admits he can improve on his current tally of nine league goals.
As far as Reysol defender Naoya Kondo is concerned, however, his teammate’s contribution cannot be measured with just numbers.
“He’s tall, he works hard for the team and he’s good at linking the play together,” said Kondo. “He scores a lot of goals with his head, and for a foreign player he is very diligent at helping out in defense. So if you ask what he contributes to the team, I’d have to say it’s a bit of everything.”
But while Kashiwa was hoping Cleo’s arrival would give it the edge in Asian competition, a comprehensive 4-1 ACL semifinal first-leg home defeat to Guangzhou in September proved otherwise. Reysol took a first-half lead before collapsing after the interval, and Cleo admits the Chinese champions — coached by Italian World Cup-winner Marcello Lippi — are on a different level to the rest of Asia.
“I think we lost in the first game,” said Cleo. “In the first half against Guangzhou we played very well and had three or four chances to score. If we had scored again we would have been fighting for the title, for sure.
“I think the team was feeling tired. I don’t know what happened in that second half, but we felt it. Guangzhou were at their best in that game, so we need to accept it. I think Guangzhou can be champions now.”
Mega-rich Guangzhou now stands on the brink of continental domination after drawing 2-2 away with FC Seoul in last week’s final first leg, and Cleo believes Lippi has proved the difference.
“For me, working with him was an amazing experience,” he said of his time with Lippi, who will become the first manager to win both the European and Asian Champions Leagues if Guangzhou triumphs in next weekend’s final second leg. “He is an amazing coach and a very good man. When he has a conversation with you, he never puts you down. When he talks to you, he gives you the confidence to be better.”