Vissel Kobe’s reported summer move for former Germany striker Lukas Podolski has made global headlines, but manager Nelsinho believes the players already at the club can lay the foundations for a J. League title challenge this season.
Turkish media last week reported that World Cup-winner Podolski — Germany’s all-time third-highest goalscorer and third-most-capped player — will join Vissel from Istanbul club Galatasaray on June 1 on a three-year deal worth $15.8 million.
Vissel initially tried to sign the 31-year-old in time for the new J. League season starting Saturday, in a protracted saga that has somewhat overshadowed the team’s preparations. Rather than allow himself to get distracted by transfer talk, however, Nelsinho has simply rolled his sleeves up and got down to work with the players he has.
“I’m happy with the way the squad has been reinforced this winter, so I don’t have anything to say (about Podolski),” said Nelsinho.
“There have been a lot of players moving to different teams this winter, including Vissel. Every team is aiming for the title and we can’t let ourselves get left behind. First of all our target is to win the league. Then the minimum is to get a place in the Asian Champions League.”
Vissel almost claimed a spot in last season’s championship playoffs after finishing second in the second-stage table, and Nelsinho is hoping to build on that achievement starting with Saturday’s season-opening visit to Shimizu S-Pulse.
Nelsinho is aiming to bring Kobe the kind of the success he enjoyed during five trophy-laden years with Kashiwa Reysol from 2009-2014, and the Brazilian is only interested in signing big-name stars like former Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Inter Milan forward Podolski if they pull their weight.
“I’ve got nothing against quality big-name players coming to the J. League,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing, but they have to be good players on the pitch. It’s not enough just to come to the J. League — are they really coming here to fight for the team? If they’re here for the good of the team, to put their bodies on the line and they’re quality players, I’m all in favor.
“The level of the J. League is good, but for the level to get even higher, the players who come here have to set a good example. They have to be a good example for the young Japanese players.”
Vissel found time amid the Podolski negotiations to bring in a host of other new faces over the winter, including three of Nelsinho’s former Reysol players — forward Junya Tanaka and defenders Hirofumi Watanabe and Wataru Hashimoto.
Nelsinho admits that “players who know how I work will adapt better” to his methods, and Tanaka is hoping for a fresh start after scoring just four goals in 21 league appearances for Reysol last season.
“First I have to get to grips with the tactics that served the team so well in the second stage last season,” said the 29-year-old. “I have to ride that wave and adapt to the players who are already here and the ones who are coming in. All that takes is effort.
“Shimizu have got into the winning habit from last year,” Tanaka added of Saturday’s opponents, who won their final nine games last season to clinch promotion. “I have experience of being promoted from J2 and going on to win the first-division title, and we have to stop that momentum. I want to make them realize how hard it is to play in J1.”
But Vissel will also have to cope with increased attention if Podolski does indeed put pen to paper, especially with the German bucking a recent trend by reportedly turning down offers from the cash-rich Chinese Super League to come to Japan.
Having first worked in the J. League at Verdy Kawasaki in 1995 — at a time when Japanese clubs were lavishing money on global stars — Nelsinho is a unique position to judge.
“The Chinese League now is like the J. League used to be,” he said. “For the J. League to get noticed worldwide it had to sign famous players, and China is currently at the same stage. The world of football has changed. It’s not easy to bring big-name players to Japan any more.”
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