It's tough being Urawa Reds. The "biggest club in Asia" tag is a difficult one to live down, even if the Saitama giants haven't come close to winning a trophy for years.
The Reds burst onto the Asian football scene by winning the J. League under the swashbuckling auspices of German coach Guido Buchwald in 2006, before his more circumspect successor Holger Osieck steered the Saitama giants to Asian Champions League glory the following year.
But no sooner had Urawa begun to dominate the J. League than their world fell apart, as the popular Saitama side spectacularly disintegrated in the 2007 title race, prompting the dismissal of coach Osieck just two games into the 2008 season. Two more German coaches followed, but neither Gert Engels nor Volker Finke could steer Urawa to the silverware they so desperately craved.
Enter Zeljko Petrovic. The Montenegrin coach enjoyed a peripatetic playing career, turning out for the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, Sevilla and PSV Eindhoven in a 16-year career spent largely in the Netherlands. Petrovic ended his playing days at small Dutch outfit RKC Waalwijk - the club he coached in the Dutch second division in 2007-08 - but crucially he also enjoyed a three-year spell in Japan with Urawa Reds.
Petrovic's time in Japan coincided with Urawa's relegation to the second tier of the J. League and the charismatic coach knows all about the Reds' storied history. Urawa packed out every game of their compact Komaba Stadium home in the second division and crowds have continued to grow since their move to the futuristic Saitama Stadium.
Indeed, a crowd of 42,767 fans turned out at Saitama Stadium on April 24 to see Urawa hammer defending champions Nagoya Grampus 3-0, in a match in which playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi and diminutive forward Genki Haraguchi tore the Nagoya defence apart. Fast forward to May 7, however, and the Reds are under pressure following two straight Golden Week defeats.
A emotional 1-0 loss to locals Vegalta in the earthquake-shattered surrounds of Sendai gave way to a similarly disappointing 2-0 defeat to regional rivals Yokohama F. Marinos, when 47,056 mostly home fans left less than impressed by Urawa's shoddy defending and inability to convert chances.
Another big crowd is expected to descend upon the National Stadium in Tokyo today, where Chiba side Kashiwa Reysol host the Reds in a late-afternoon blockbuster. The promoted Sun Kings set the early pace this season, winning their first three games before crashing back to earth with an unlucky 2-1 defeat to Montedio in the rugged wilds of Yamagata.
The vast horde of Reds fans who travel home and away to support their team means Kashiwa are unwilling to host this game at their compact Hitachi Stadium, so home advantage is lost as Reysol prepare to welcome the Reds to the neutral confines of Kokuritsu. The venue has hosted some thrilling clashes between these two sides over the years, most notably on the same weekend two seasons ago, when Sergio Escudero crashed home the unlikeliest of winners to propel Urawa to a stunning 3-2 come-from-behind victory in driving rain.
A calm Petrovic has shrugged off the back-to-back defeats to Vegalta and F. Marinos, saying his side are still confident despite the Golden Week setback.
"Currently, our players' spirits are high and very strong," he told the club's website. "Their physical conditions are also well. For this reason, all we have to do now is to believe in our play style and just fight."
Fighting is a given, but it's results that count in the business of winning trophies. Another defeat here could spell trouble for new man Petrovic, as he walks the tightrope between staying confident and avoiding catastrophe at one of Asian football's most recognisable clubs.
Copyright © Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com