The arrival of star Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan has transformed Cerezo Osaka into runaway favorites for the J. League title in the minds of many, but if manager Ranko Popovic agrees with them, he is keeping quiet.
Former Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan forward Forlan made global headlines when he signed with Cerezo for the 2014 season in January for an estimated $5.9 million, bringing a genuine big-name player to the J. League for the first time since the likes of Dunga and Hristo Stoichkov commanded the spotlight in the late 1990s.
Forlan joins a talented young Cerezo side that already looked a dark horse for the title after finishing fourth last year, but Popovic, who arrived to take over from Brazilian Levir Culpi in the offseason, is at pains to play down expectations.
“What I don’t like is that because Diego has come to us, Cerezo are the champions and everyone else has to play for second place,” Popovic told The Japan Times ahead of Cerezo’s season opener at home to champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday. “This is not so. We have to demonstrate it and first we have to relieve this pressure.
“Diego is amazing, but if we wait for everything from Diego, it’s wrong. We have other players and football is a team sport. When we work together as a team and everyone puts their personal qualities in the team, we can expect some good results.”
Popovic does, of course, recognize the 34-year-old Forlan’s outstanding individual ability, with the quality that brought him the Golden Ball for best player at the 2010 World Cup and bucketloads of goals in Europe’s elite leagues set to make him a huge hit in Japan.
“He can make a big difference,” said Popovic, who joined Cerezo after leading FC Tokyo to an eighth-place finish last season. “His personality is also very good. As a veteran player at 34 in Japan, he still has the fire for competition and to challenge and do his best.
“This is what we need, because without Forlan we are a really young team. Now what we need is to be a stable team who can play good football and get good results.”
Forlan will certainly have a talented supporting cast in Osaka, with Japan internationals Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi alongside young player of the year Takumi Minamino, midfielder Takahiro Ogihara and new Serbian defender Gojko Kacar. Kakitani scored 21 league goals in a breakthrough 2013 season, and the 24-year-old is licking his lips at the thought of what he can achieve with Forlan beside him.
“Forlan has a great shot,” said Kakitani. “I haven’t played an official game with him yet, but I want to see what he’s like when he’s at 100 percent. He’s an all-around forward.
“We’ll have to try to strike up a good partnership between us, but as a team we also have to figure out what kind of a player he is. It’s a good thing that him coming here has brought a lot more attention to Cerezo, but he also plays in the same position as me, so he’s a good rival for me.”
For all Popovic’s caution, however, the manager cannot deny that Cerezo have a golden chance to win the title for the first time in their history. Involvement in the Asian Champions League may complicate matters, but Popovic believes he has the necessary ingredients to compete for silverware.
“We will fight for it,” he said. “If you don’t think you can win the league, why are you playing? We have to look for our chance like everybody. Of course we have the possibility, but we want to fight for the top.
“Cerezo in their history have never had two seasons at a good level — one season is good and then the next one is not. We have to be more consistent, and hopefully this season we can take our chance.”