SAITAMA – After finishing champions and runners-up in the J. League last season, Urawa Reds and Kawasaki Frontale have a newly forged domestic rivalry — which means Saturday afternoon’s clash at Saitama Stadium will be a keenly contested one.
Both teams, though, will have one eye on Wednesday’s AFC Champions League fixtures, where Reds coach Holger Osieck believes the Saitama giants and the less-glamorous Frontale will put aside their domestic duels to battle shoulder-to-shoulder against the cream of Asian soccer.
“Frontale are a good team and they have had a similar schedule to us leading into the Champions League,” Osieck said after training Thursday. “Although it would be obvious to consider us rivals, really it is not about rivalry but rather about representing Japan.”
Osieck may have only taken over in the winter break but he has seen enough of Frontale, who edged Gamba Osaka into third place in 2006, to believe Takashi Sekizuka’s unfashionable outfit can go far in the league and Asia this year.
“They have a lot of fast, aggressive players,” said Osieck, referring to the likes of Juninho and Magnum, both scorers of three league goals already this season.
Those goals have given Frontale a joint-highest total — with Urawa — of 12 league goals already this season, leaving them with 11 points and seventh place, three points behind league-leading Urawa. Both teams also are leading their Champions League groups, after three matches.
Osieck will be hoping the Reds can carry on in Saturday’s game their early-season propensity to kill off games a lot earlier than they did under Guido Buchwald, which has seen them climb to the top of the standings with the minimum of fuss.
But the Reds’ ruthlessness, while making for some exhilarating early action in games, has meant a grisliness sets in as they play out the remaining minutes of matches beyond their opponents. Urawa’s last two games, the 2-0 win over Kashiwa Reysol at National Stadium last Sunday and the 1-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua in Saitama the Wednesday before, are evidence of this.
Osieck is conscious, though, of his team’s habit of taking the foot off the pedal as games progress.
“What we’re striving for it is to have a consistent 90 minutes straight which I think we should be able to accomplish,” Osieck said. “As a team we think the way we will be able to accomplish what we want is by having a compact formation. The way we can accomplish this is by increasing the speed during practice.”
Osieck will settle for his team wrapping up three points against Kawasaki early on, though, considering the Reds have to fly to Shanghai on Sunday for their game against Shenhua on Wednesday.
Frontale has the slightly kinder schedule after the Reds’ match, hosting South Korea’s Chunnam Dragons at Todoroki Stadium on Wednesday.
A concern for Osieck before two of the biggest games of the Reds’ season so far is the match fitness of inspirational center-back Marcus Tulio Tanaka. A decision was to be made Friday on whether the national team player will be ready to face Frontale after he complained soreness in his hamstring this week. Osieck was optimistic Tulio would be ready for battle if he got the all-clear Friday.
“He hasn’t been able to practice as much as he wanted but the times that he has he has looked good during practice,” Osieck said.