SAITAMA – Asian champions Urawa Reds finally picked up their first win of the J. League season after beating Vegalta Sendai 1-0 on Saturday in caretaker manager Tsuyoshi Otsuki’s first league game in charge.
Urawa went into the game at Saitama Stadium in crisis mode after firing manager Takafumi Hori on Monday — less than five months after he had led the club to the Asian Champions League title for its first piece of silverware in 10 years — following a disastrous start to the J. League campaign that yielded only two draws and three defeats.
But Shinzo Koroki scored in the fifth minute to put Urawa on course for a cathartic win over high-flying Vegalta, giving Otsuki something to build on after stepping up from his role as the club’s training and youth director.
“I’m really happy that I could get a win in my first game as manager at Saitama Stadium,” said Otsuki, who oversaw a 0-0 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the Levain Cup on Wednesday in his first game in charge. “The players did really well. We played well in the first half and I was looking for more of the same in the second half, but we started to tire a little earlier than I expected. The players did well to fight through that.
“I took each player’s particular qualities into account when picking the team. I picked the players in the position I thought they would be most comfortable in.”
Hori took over from Mihailo Petrovic last July and was named Asian Football Confederation coach of the year for 2017 after leading Urawa to the continental title. But a 2-1 loss to Jubilo Iwata last Sunday brought the curtain down on his reign after less than a year, with Urawa heading into Saturday’s game second from bottom of the table.
“I wanted to win for Hori-san,” said Koroki, who scored his second goal of the season. “This is my sixth year at the club and he had been here as a coach all that time. Mischa (Petrovic) and Hori-san helped me a lot and I really liked them as people.
“I wanted to say all that in my hero interview, but it was too difficult and I felt like crying. But more than wanting to give him this present today, I would have liked to have done it when he was still here.”
The game was less than five minutes old when Koroki controlled a long pass from Yuki Muto and shrugged off defender Yasuhiro Hiraoka before calmly slotting the ball past goalkeeper Kentaro Seki for the opening goal.
“It was a great ball forward and I was able to use my body well against the defender then finish calmly,” said Koroki. “Recently when we’ve scored in the first 10 minutes, we haven’t played well afterward. If you don’t score the second or third goal, it becomes a difficult game.”
Urawa went on to control the first half and Yuki Abe almost doubled the home side’s lead with a piledriver that Seki managed to tip over the bar in the 29th minute.
But Vegalta began to create scoring chances after the break, and Urawa was lucky to escape when Naoki Ishihara headed a free kick against the post and Reds defender Mauricio almost smashed the rebound into his own net in the 60th minute.
“Conceding after five minutes was down to our carelessness,” said Vegalta manager Susumu Watanabe, whose team began the day in second place after starting the season with three wins and two draws. “But for the 85 minutes after that, we were able to express ourselves and make a lot of chances.
“It was exactly a year ago to the day that we came here and lost 7-0, and I told the players to go out there and show what we had learned in the last 365 days. It’s frustrating that we couldn’t win today, just as we couldn’t last year, but we can take confidence from the way we played in the second half.”
In the day’s other games, Consadole Sapporo smashed Nagoya Grampus 3-0, Jubilo drew 0-0 with Shimizu S-Pulse in the Shizuoka derby, and Cerezo Osaka edged Sagan Tosu 2-1.
In the day’s late game, Miki Yamane scored a 94th-minute as Shonan Bellmare beat Kashima Antlers 2-1.
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