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Sanfrecce emboldened as chase for third straight title looms

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Sanfrecce Hiroshima know they could not have won last year’s J. League title without a bit of luck, but that will not stop the two-time defending champions from believing they can make it three in a row when the new season starts on Saturday.

Sanfrecce looked dead and buried when they headed into the final two games of last year’s campaign five points behind leaders Yokohama F. Marinos and one behind Urawa Reds, but if Marinos thought they were going to be handed the title on a silver platter, they hadn’t reckoned with Sanfrecce.

Instead, Marinos and Reds went into meltdown while Hajime Moriyasu’s men calmly picked up maximum points from their last two fixtures, beating Kashima Antlers 2-0 on the final day to retain the trophy in dramatic style.

“I knew it would be difficult to win the title, but I also knew that if we kept winning, a miracle was always possible,” Moriyasu told The Japan Times ahead of Saturday’s season opener away to Cerezo Osaka.

“With two games left, Marinos were five points ahead of us, and of course in that situation it’s difficult to win the title. But we wanted to take each game as it came and give our all in each one. We were able to do that, and the football gods rewarded us in the end. The important thing was to keep going.”

Sanfrecce began last season with their credentials as champions under scrutiny having won the title against all expectations the year before, but after a slow start, Moriyasu’s side soon found its stride. Sanfrecce gradually hauled themselves up the table to join the title race over the summer, and Moriyasu believes his players’ championship-winning experience was the crucial factor.

“Last season we managed to eliminate the mental ups and downs,” said the 45-year-old, who has now won the title in both years since becoming a manager. “At the start of last season we were playing in the J. League and the Asian Champions League, the schedule was hard and we had some injuries, but the players kept calm, played clinically, and that led us to the title.

“If we had been up and down mentally, I don’t think we would have been able to survive the start of the season and go on to win it.”

But while Sanfrecce may have looked at themselves differently after their 2012 breakthrough, so too did the opposition.

“When we first won the title, no one was really looking out for us,” said midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama. “Last year we were being tightly marked, and tactically that was something we felt the whole year. But having to find a way to overcome that made us a better team, and I think winning the title the first time allowed us to win it the second time.”

Talismanic striker Hisato Sato again made a giant contribution after claiming the player of the year award the previous season, but not even a return of 17 goals was enough to pique the interest of national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni. Sato looks unlikely to make Japan’s World Cup squad this summer having been in the international wilderness since 2012, but Aoyama has no doubts about his teammate’s worth.

“First of all, we consider Hisato Sato to be at a level good enough for the national team,” said Aoyama. “Even if he isn’t called up, that doesn’t change.

“The fact that he didn’t score as many goals last year as he did the year before means we didn’t give him enough support, and we feel that responsibility. He always lifts us up and he still has a chance with the national team.”

One player who definitely will be playing in Brazil this summer is Cerezo’s new Uruguayan star signing, Diego Forlan. Sanfrecce will get a close look at the former Manchester United and Atletico Madrid forward when they visit Nagai Stadium on Saturday, but Moriyasu is smitten by what he has seen already.

“He’s a great player,” said Moriyasu. “We were in Miyazaki for our camp at the same time as Cerezo, and I went to watch them play Okayama in a friendly. Forlan scored a goal from 35 or 40 meters. I can’t wait to face such a world-class player in the opening game of the season.”