Urawa Reds manager Mihailo Petrovic has vowed to use the pain of last season’s J. League championship collapse to fuel his players’ fire in 2017, but still believes his team was last year’s “moral winner.”
Reds finished top of the overall table with a record-equaling 74 points but were forced by competition rules to play a two-legged championship final against Kashima Antlers — who had finished 15 points behind them in third place. Urawa won the first leg 1-0 before taking an early lead in the return fixture at Saitama Stadium, only to concede two goals and hand the title to Kashima on away goals.
The defeat added yet another sorry chapter to Urawa’s long list of dramatic failures, and compounded the club’s dislike of the playoff system after losing to lower-ranked Gamba Osaka in the previous year’s semifinal.
The J. League will now revert to the single-league format for the 2017 season starting Saturday — having pulled the plug on the playoff system after just two years — and the irony is not lost on Petrovic as he prepares for his team’s opener away to Yokohama F. Marinos.
“We had a great season last year apart from the final result,” Petrovic told The Japan Times. “We finished 15 points ahead of Kashima and under the original rules we would have been champions. But the rules stated that we had to play a one-off final, and we weren’t able to win that. But I think we were the moral winners. It was a very frustrating way to end but that doesn’t mean we had a bad season.
“The frustration doesn’t just come from last year,” he continued. “We lost to Gamba the previous season and that hurt too. We have been in the title race without winning it for a few years now but that just makes us stronger going into the next season. We will use last year’s experience to get even stronger this year.”
Reds did manage to end their decade-long domestic trophy drought last year, however, beating Gamba on penalties to lift the League Cup in October.
Midfielder Tomoya Ugajin is hopeful that the team can use that success to establish a winning culture, and has set his sights on belatedly claiming the league title.
“We haven’t been able to win the title (with a group of players that have been together) over the last five years and that frustration builds up year upon year,” said the 28-year-old, who made 26 regular-season appearances and scored three goals last season. “Last year we won the League Cup and this year we want to use what we learned over the course of the season to win the league.
“We did the business over the whole year, but when it came down to the championship we just didn’t have the ability to win the big games like Kashima had.”
Kashima gave Urawa a masterclass in staying cool under pressure in the championship final, and Ugajin admits that he and his teammates may have subconsciously taken their eyes off the ball.
“Our target was to finish on top of the overall table and we managed to achieve that,” he said. “That felt like something of an achievement, even if it was just a small one, so maybe that made us lose our focus a little.”
Urawa’s J. League championship loss denied it the chance to appear in December’s Club World Cup, and insult was added to injury when J. League representative Kashima stormed into the final and took European aristocrats Real Madrid all the way to extra time before finally succumbing 4-2.
“That was so frustrating,” said Ugajin. “Our aim was to play in that tournament and that was what we had worked toward all year. So watching it was a mixture of frustration and wondering what had gone wrong.”
But after losing so many big one-off games in the past, Petrovic believes the return of the single-league format could give his team the advantage heading into the new season.
“We don’t have the same kind of championship this year that we did last year,” he said. “All we have to do now is finish on top of the table. One-off games can have a big effect on the players mentally, but this year the format goes back to a single league so that’s not really something we have to worry about now. We just have to rack up the points week by week.”
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