A striker finally scoring his first league goal 15 games into a season wouldn’t normally be greeted with murmurs of excitement, but then Naohiro Takahara’s track record has earned him the benefit of the doubt.
Takahara, a player with 57 caps and 23 international goals to his name in a career spent at clubs in Japan, Argentina and Germany, scored Reds’ second in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Vissel Kobe, capping an assured performance full of menace and aggression.
Anyone watching the 30-year-old for the first time would struggle to comprehend why he has not appeared for his country since a 0-0 draw with Paraguay in May last year, particularly given Japan’s well-documented troubles in front of goal.
But Saturday’s game represented the first chink of light in a long period of darkness for the striker, and it is still far from certain whether he can emerge on the other side.
Takahara moved to Urawa from Eintracht Frankfurt at the start of 2008 to much fanfare, becoming the J. League’s highest-paid player after a largely successful five-year stint in the Bundesliga.
His arrival was intended to elevate Reds — then the Asian club champions — to an even higher level, but the move quickly turned sour.
The expected deluge of goals failed to materialize as Takahara toiled from one game to the next, eventually losing both his place in the team and the confidence that had thus far seemed unbreakable.
His fall from grace was brutal. The deft touch that had made him such a formidable talent had completely vanished. Every week as Takahara stumbled over his own feet, the ball seemingly burning him, the rictus grin of embarrassment that froze his face grew more and more painful to watch.
A change of management and a full preseason inspired hopes of a change in fortune for the start of the current campaign, but there would be no instant turnaround. Takahara’s confidence has been so badly ravaged that his rehabilitation will take time.
Saturday’s performance, however, offers hope. Flashes of the control and power that made his name illuminated an otherwise drab game, and the ruthlessness of his finish was a welcome sight for a player who managed only six league goals last season.
“Watch, wait and see,” was manager Volker Finke’s assessment, and there will be many in Japan doing just that. The World Cup is still a year away, and a genuinely convincing candidate to lead the line for Takeshi Okada’s side in South Africa has yet to present himself.
Takahara has the ideal blend of strength, awareness, mobility and subtlety to make the position his own, but Okada has been justified in leaving him out of virtually the entire qualifying program.
Only a Takahara at the top of his game will do, and one good performance is insufficient evidence to suggest he can return to his former powers after so long in the doldrums.
But talent does not simply disappear overnight, and Takahara has too much of that to be written off. Now it is up to the player to prove that Saturday’s display was just a taster of what lies ahead.
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