Manchester United arrived in Tokyo on Monday for the first leg of its Asian tour, boasting a roster packed with the biggest names in world soccer.
But in a reversal of the natural order of European clubs visiting the Far East, it will be its Japanese opponent which will be fielding a weakened side.
Urawa Reds take on United at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday evening with a squad depleted by call-ups to the Japan national side currently competing in the Asian Cup in Vietnam.
Defenders Yuki Abe and Keisuke Tsuboi are among those on international duty, as is influential midfield linchpin Keita Suzuki.
Factor in injured Reds Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Washington, and Urawa will be kicking itself that it has been denied the opportunity to take on one of Europe’s strongest sides with a full hand.
United has no such problems.
Stung by accusations of failing to take previous intercontinental tours seriously, Sir Alex Ferguson has spared none of his biggest names the grueling trip to the other side of the world.
Wayne Rooney and reigning English player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo are among the players at his disposal, and Ferguson is expecting his team to give a good showing in front of a fervent Japanese audience.
“I think you will see the quality we have, and we can put on a good perfor- mance,” he said.
“Tomorrow’s team will be a strong one. It is possible that Nani won’t play. He is still holding an injury from playing with Portugal.
“There is still doubt for Owen Hargreaves but I think he might be OK. I have brought the strongest squad available to me.”
Evergreen midfielder Ryan Giggs is also keen to show United’s strength against Reds.
“We are looking forward to the game,” Giggs said.
“It is an important time for the players here, and we hope to get off to a good start. We know it will be a tough game, but hopefully we can get our match fitness up to scratch without any injuries.”
Urawa is by far Japan’s biggest club, regularly playing in front of crowds of 50,000. Ferguson paid tribute to the strides Japanese soccer has made since the inception of the J. League.
“I watch Japanese football quite a lot on TV and I can see the quality,” he said.
“When I first came here in 1989 football was just taking off in Japan. Now we can see the progress.
“We played Urawa Reds two years ago in a fantastic stadium with a great pitch, and it just shows how much progress has been made in those years. The stimulus from the World Cup in 2002 has given a fresh impetus to Japan.”
But Ferguson remained coy on the chances of a Japanese player signing for his club.
South Korean attacking midfielder Park Ji Sung has thrived at Old Trafford since his 2005 move from Dutch team PSV Eindhoven, and Ferguson warned Japanese players they would have to prove themselves in Europe before he would consider them ready for a move to United.
“There is good evidence that the quality of players in Japan has improved,” he said.
“Choosing players for Manchester United is based on many things, so I never discount it because there are many surprises in football. The best way is if they come to Europe and are successful, and if they can play for a club of our size like Park Ji Sung.”
One player who United is definitely looking to sign is Argentine Carlos Tevez.
The striker, who is currently with his national side at the Copa America in Venezuela, is contracted to Premiership rival West Ham United, but has been subject to intense scrutiny due to the shadowy details of his contract and relationship with soccer investor Kia Joorabchian.
United Chief Executive David Gill said the club is trying its best to overcome the red tape blocking Tevez’s transfer.
“We are working on that,” he said.
“It is complicated, overcomplicated in my humble opinion, but the player will have a medical in Manchester some time this week.
“We are confident it can be achieved over the course of this next week.”
United will travel to South Korea after the Reds match to play FC Seoul on Friday, before taking on Shenzhen FC in Macau on July 23 and Guangzhou in Guangdong on July 27.
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