Soccer: Last season's scars leave Urawa baying for Antlers' blood
Still smarting from last year's post-season meltdown, Urawa Reds will be aiming to land an early psychological blow when they take on double winners Kashima Antlers on Saturday in the Super Cup, the curtain-raiser for the new J-League season.
Urawa finished top of the overall standings last year but in the championship final blew a 1-0 first-leg advantage and then a second-leg lead at home against Kashima, allowing Masatada Ishii's men a 2-1 comeback win and a record eighth league crown.
As if to rub salt in Reds' wounds, Kashima, who won the championship final on the away goals rule, then captured the world's attention by almost stunning European champions Real Madrid before falling 4-2 in extra time in the final of the Club World Cup.
"Speaking honestly, they (Kashima) played a great final and watching it made me think that if had been us in the final then we would have beaten Real Madrid," Reds manager Mihailo Petrovic told Kyodo News earlier this week.
"Obviously, it was disappointing for us the way we finished last season but what has happened has happened," he said. "Our job is to train hard every day, so to see all the work we put in come to nothing because of the championship final really stung."
Reds finished with 74 points last season to top the overall table after two stages, 15 points more than third-place Kashima.
And there was no doubt in Petrovic's mind who the true champions were.
"You should ask the chairman of the J-League if we were champions last year or not. We were the moral winners and the Kashima Antlers players at last year's J-League award ceremony said themselves that they felt Urawa were the champions," said Petrovic.
"We weren't treated as the J-League champions but I feel we were the champions. The league season is 34 games long and the championship is decided with the strongest team top at the end of it."
"Last year there was a championship final and it was a one-off. We might have lost even if we'd faced (relegated teams) Avispa Fukuoka or Shonan Bellmare. The stronger team doesn't always win in that situation."
The J-League season reverts to a more orthodox single stage format this year, a move much welcomed by many, not least of all Petrovic.
"We have the advantage in the long run. We have been disappointed in the past but it always makes us even stronger and I am sure that will be the case again this year," he said.
Reds have made several low-key preseason signings, adding, among others, striker Rafael Silva from Albirex Niigata, midfielder Daisuke Kikuchi from Shonan and Fukuoka defender Yu Tamura.
"Daisuke's team went down and so did Tamura's. Rafael Silva, if you look at his stats, didn't start that much but we will improve these players and that is our advantage," said Petrovic.
Gaku Shibasaki, who scored twice in the Club World Cup final, has moved overseas, but Kashima manager Ishii has made a number of astute additions.
Rafael Silva's teammate at Niigata, Leo Silva has joined, as have Vissel Kobe hitman Pedro Junior and former Brazil international midfielder Leandro.
"They (the new signings) have made a much more seamless transition to the team than I imagined and I have big expectations for them. We are getting closer and closer to being ready for the season," Ishii told Kyodo.
"Until now we have been focusing on team conditioning at camp and trying to get the new additions to the team to understand our tactics. Now it is about focusing on our opponents, starting on Saturday with Urawa Reds."
The J-League is pumping cash into the top flight in a bid to improve international competitiveness, using funds from a 10-year, 210 billion yen (about $2 billion) deal to sell online broadcasting rights to British-based Perform Group.
It is the largest commercial deal in the history of Japanese sports. The championship-winning team will get prize money and other payments of over 2 billion yen, five times what Kashima, pulled in for winning the title last year.
But Ishii says he does not "feel there is any extra pressure because of the increase in prize money. I'll leave all that stuff to the people that run the business side of the club and just concentrate on strengthening the team."