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Stress-free Nakamura eyes title for Frontale

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kawasaki Frontale playmaker Kengo Nakamura has credited a newfound selfish streak for his resurgent form this season and is hoping to ride it all the way to the club’s first J. League title.

“The younger players in the team have really improved this year and that has reduced the burden on me a lot,” Nakamura told The Japan Times. “I’ve been able to concentrate on my own game a lot more and I’ve been able to score goals and chip in with assists.

“I don’t have to exert as much energy as before. I’m not wasting energy trying to do too much. The fact that I’m playing better is down to the fact that my teammates are playing better. It’s not just down to me.”

With his 36th birthday arriving at the end of this month, Nakamura is undergoing a renaissance this season. The midfielder, who has been capped 68 times by Japan, has been at the heart of Frontale’s push for the J. League title, with the team already assured of a place in the playoffs with two games of the regular season remaining.

Frontale currently trail overall leaders Urawa Reds by one point ahead of Saturday’s visit to third-place Kashima Antlers, and Nakamura is determined to claim the direct ticket to the championship final that comes with finishing top at the end of the year.

“If you finish first overall you go straight to the final, so we want to get that,” said Nakamura. “But quite simply, we just want to finish the season on top of the table.”

Frontale, who missed out to Kashima for the first-stage title by a single point, passed a major test of their championships credentials with a 2-0 win over defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday.

The game was Frontale’s first since manager Yahiro Kazama announced he would step down at the end of the season after five years in charge, but Nakamura insists the manager’s bombshell has brought the team closer together.

“If you look at the Hiroshima game, I think that is evidence that it has had a positive effect,” said Nakamura. “The team hasn’t drifted apart. We understand the kind of football he wants us to play and we want to win the title playing his way before he leaves. We want to win it together.”

No player has done more for Frontale over the years than one-club man Nakamura, who made his debut in 2003 and has since gone on to rack up 446 league appearances.

Nakamura was part of the Frontale side that finished as J. League runners-up in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and lost the League Cup final in 2007 and 2009, but never managed to win a trophy before a team laden with internationals split up and the club drifted into mediocrity.

“I never thought about leaving the club during that time,” said Nakamura. “I felt I had to be the foundation of the team that the young players built on. I considered that my responsibility, so when things weren’t going well it was a big source of stress for me. It was a difficult time.

“But I don’t think it was time wasted. I think we are where we are now because of what we went through.”

Kazama replaced Naoki Soma in early 2012, and Nakamura credits the current manager for giving him a new lease of life.

“I’m the team captain, and I always used to think about what was best for the team,” said Nakamura. “I thought about the team before I thought about myself.

“Then Kazama arrived and told me to stop worrying about the team and concentrate on improving myself. That was a big turning point. My technique got better and the team improved as a result. It’s rare for a manager to think like that. Usually they stress the importance of the team before the individual.”

Frontale have since reaped the benefits with a gradual improvement over the past few seasons, culminating in this year’s push for the title and nine goals so far for potential J. League player of the year Nakamura.

“If we win the title, it will bring even more out of the young players,” said Nakamura. “It will show them what it takes to become a championship-winning team. That experience carries over into the next year. If you win it once, you have a better chance of winning it again. I’ve been here for more than 10 years and I haven’t been able to make that first step. This is a good chance for the club.”

And Nakamura’s form has not gone unnoticed by national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic, who named the midfielder in his back-up squad for Japan’s World Cup qualifying matches in September.

“However old you are, the national team is something you should always aim for,” said Nakamura. “It had been said that Halilhodzic wouldn’t pick older players, so it was a surprise. It meant he was watching me.

“I’ve been involved in qualifying campaigns for two World Cups and I can relate that experience to the squad. Also, I think I’m in my best form ever so I think I could contribute on the pitch as well. It gives me motivation to know that Halilhodzic is watching me. But it won’t mean anything if I don’t keep playing well.”