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Popovic says Cerezo primed for title run

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

It is impossible to properly assess how each team will fare more than a month ahead of the start of the 2014 J. League season, but Cerezo Osaka have reason to be quietly confident about the year ahead.

Cerezo made global headlines last week with the news that 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan was on the brink of signing with the club, and there can be little doubt that the arrival of the 34-year-old Uruguayan would catapult the Osaka side into another stratosphere.

But whether or not Forlan actually signs, Cerezo already have the foundations in place to challenge for a first-ever title.

Cerezo put together a strong campaign last year to end the season in fourth place, always remaining on the fringes of the title race but nevertheless finishing only four points behind eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

In striker Yoichiro Kakitani and midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi, Cerezo also had two of the league’s outstanding performers. Both players established themselves in the national team as well as making the J. League Best XI for the first time, and it is to Cerezo’s huge advantage that the pair remain as preparations for the new season get under way.

Manager Levir Culpi will not be around after leaving the club at the end of last year, however, and the Brazilian’s steady influence will be missed having spent 7½ seasons at the club in three separate spells.

Former FC Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic is the man to replace him, and the Serbian wasted no time in identifying Cerezo’s target for the year as preseason training began earlier this week.

“There is a lot of potential here,” said Popovic. “When I first met the players, I felt they had a real hunger and motivation for the task ahead, and a strong desire to accomplish something.

“They’re not aiming for the title because someone told them to, but because they themselves want to be the best. I feel a real determination from within the players to win the title.”

Cerezo’s exceptional knack for producing young talent means a midseason asset-stripping by European clubs has often been the club’s downfall. Popovic cannot be certain that Kakitani and Yamaguchi will not leave in the summer like Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kim Bo-kyung before them, and others such as Takumi Minamino and Takahiro Ogihara will feature on European clubs’ radars, too.

But if Popovic can keep the bulk of his squad intact for the entire season — Forlan or no Forlan — Cerezo can challenge for the title.

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Nagoya Grampus will have a different feel now that manager Dragan Stojkovic has departed after six seasons in charge, but replacement Akira Nishino is eager to stamp his own personal touch on the team.

Nishino returns to the J. League after a short, unhappy stint at Vissel Kobe in 2012, with the 58-year-old more interested in replicating the success that he enjoyed in a decade at the helm of Gamba Osaka.

Gamba’s free-flowing, swashbuckling style brought trophies galore and bucket loads of goals at both ends of the pitch, and Nishino insists he has no plans to change his philosophy as he looks to guide Nagoya to its first title since 2010.

“Regardless of what players you have, my ideal football is not to wait and react but to be proactive and take the initiative yourself,” said Nishino. “Not a defensive style but an attacking style, putting lots of balls in toward your opponent’s goal. I want to play the kind of football that gets the fans excited.”

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Yokohama F. Marinos may have eased some of the pain of last season’s J. League title collapse by winning the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day, but for manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, the frustration cannot be forgotten so easily.

Marinos threw away a four-point lead with two games to go to hand the title to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on the final day of the season, before gaining a measure of revenge with a 2-0 victory over the same opponent at National Stadium less than a month later.

But not even the pleasure of winning the cup for the first time in 21 years, it seems, was enough to satisfy Higuchi.

“I was happy and relieved after we won the cup, but a day later I felt no sense of achievement,” said Higuchi. “Instead I felt the frustration of letting the league title slip through our fingers boiling up again. The players feel the same, and we’re going to do everything we can to win the title this year.”

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Quotable: “My English is better than his.”

— New Urawa Reds striker Tadanari Lee aims a playful jab at AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda, and argues that his unproductive stint in England with Southampton was not entirely wasted.