Urawa Reds were quick off the mark to begin training for the 2009 season this week, but then the Saitama club has good reason to be impatient for a fresh start.
New manager Volker Finke took charge of his first session on Monday, running the rule over a team that lurched from crisis to crisis last season before the utter humiliation of a 6-1 final-day home defeat to Yokohama F. Marinos.
Along the way came the sackings of two managers, fights on and off the pitch, no trophies and the ignominy of a seventh-place league finish.
2008 wasn’t so much the year Urawa’s crown slipped. It was the year it was blown clean off.
How Finke deals with the situation could well decide the destination of this year’s J. League title, and the German comes with a lofty reputation.
The 60-year-old holds the record as German soccer’s longest-serving manager from his 18 years in charge of SC Freiburg, and under his stewardship the unfashionable Black Forest club achieved a third-place finish in the Bundesliga and qualified for the UEFA Cup twice.
But Finke’s powers will be put to the test by a team that played pedestrian, sterile soccer for much of last year, and it may be a sign of things to come that Tsukasa Umesaki has been handed the No. 7 shirt for the new season.
Umesaki was chronically underused in his first year at the club, and if Finke decides to make the young winger an integral part of his plans, he may be able to buy some early goodwill from a set of supporters crying out for entertainment.
How to handle the man who wore No. 7 last season — Naohiro Takahara — will be another challenge. The former Eintracht Frankfurt striker had a dreadful first season back in Japan, but it is a telling statistic that he completed 90 minutes in only five league games.
Takahara is too good a player to write off, and with Yuichiro Nagai moving on to Shimizu S-Pulse, this could be the year when the 29-year-old finally lives up to his star billing.
But Nagai’s departure also cuts down Finke’s striking options, and reinforcements have yet to arrive.
A large part of Freiburg’s success was down to Finke casting his net far and wide, and the manager’s eye for untapped talent saw a slew of Tunisians, Georgians and Bosnians make their mark at the club.
That looks unlikely to happen at Urawa for the time being, and with finances tightening in Japanese soccer, Finke may just have to make the most of what he has inherited.
Fortunately for him, that group includes key men who should be hungry to restore their tarnished reputations. Robson Ponte, Keita Suzuki and Edmilson all had seasons to forget for one reason or another, but the same cannot be said of Marcus Tulio Tanaka.
The center back was the club’s one consistent senior player last year, and again looks set to shoulder the burden in 2009.
Managers may come and go in Saitama, but Finke will find that Urawa’s fortunes depend on Tulio more than anyone else.
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