SAITAMA - Well over 50,000 Urawa Reds fans made their way to Saitama Stadium on Sunday night to see their team take on former Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta and Germany great Lukas Podolski.
They may have only gotten half of what they came for, but they surely left satisfied after Urawa’s 4-0 victory over Vissel Kobe sent them up to eighth in the J. League first division table.
Iniesta’s absence from the squad was one of several changes made by Vissel’s interim manager Kentaro Hayashi, who is keeping the dugout seat warm until newly-appointed tactician Juan Manuel Lillo receives his work permit. Thai fullback Theerathon, a regular for Kobe on the left flank, was one of several regulars who started on the bench.
“We had a lot of changes this week, but the players did their best and I’m grateful to them and to our supporters for coming out and cheering us on until the very end,” Hayashi said after the match.
“(Iniesta’s) absence was significant for Vissel Kobe,” Reds manager Oswaldo Oliveira said. “We prepared for him to be on the pitch. Around Friday we understood that he might not be able to play because of injury, but we worked with the assumption that he would play until we saw the team sheet.”
Meanwhile, Podolski dropped back from striker to more of a central role in an attempt to fill the gap left by his Spanish teammate.
Those efforts were for naught, as Vissel rarely made any threatening inroads into the Reds’ penalty area over the course of 90 minutes and ended the day outshot 17 to 7.
“Podolski’s shooting range goes out about 30 meters, and he’s incredibly accurate with his side changes and last passes, and (midfielders) (Takuya) Aoki and (Kazuki) Nagasawa both knew that they couldn’t give him time or space to work in,” said Tomoaki Makino, a former teammate of Podolski’s at Germany’s Koln. “In 2011 we played together and I never thought that he’d play in the J. League all these years later.”
Vissel’s formation, initially a 4-3-3 but shifting toward a 3-3-2-2, left it wide open to counters and it was Aoki who opened the scoring in the 23rd minute when his shot from the penalty arc went off the outstretched hand of Kim Seung-gyu and into the net.
After Reds midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi saw two successive attempts blocked in the 36th minute, it came down to ace striker Shinzo Koroki to double the host’s lead in the 42nd minute when he assaulted the penalty area, managing to get off a close-range shot despite being pulled down by a Vissel defender.
The second half looked much like the first, only Vissel were given the additional challenge of having to attack toward the wall of sound that is Saitama Stadium’s infamous east end. It took just six minutes for Yuki Muto to float Urawa’s third goal of the match over Kim, while 26-year-old Kazuki Nagasawa left the 55,689 in attendance no doubt about the result with a tremendous header in the 76th minute to make it 4-0.
“We were able to move up in the standings and it feels like we can see a new world coming into view,” Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa said. “It felt great to play in a sold-out stadium for the first time in a while. This is our home and I’m happy that we started and finished the game well.
“Our next few games are against teams close to us in the standings and we’re still in position to aim for third place, so we have to keep aiming up.”
Elsewhere on Sunday night, goals by Yasushi Endo and Yuma Suzuki gave Kashima Antlers a 2-0 victory at Consadole Sapporo, pushing the veteran side from seventh place all the way up to fourth. Sapporo, which has lost two in a row, fell from fourth to sixth on a tiebreaker against Vegalta Sendai.