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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011

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Young and wise: Winger Koki Mizuno, seen here with Celtic in 2009, is back in the J. League with Kashiwa Reysol but dreams of playing abroad again. KYODO PHOTO

Healthy Mizuno strives to contribute for Kashiwa


Staff writer

KASHIWA, Chiba Pref. — As a fresh wave of Japanese players try to make their mark in Europe this spring, Kashiwa Reysol winger Koki Mizuno will settle for simply setting foot on a pitch again.

Still only 25 but with a weight of experience on his shoulders, it is fair to say that Mizuno's career has not followed the trajectory it seemed set for when he burst onto the scene with JEF United Chiba in 2004.

An international debut followed under former club manager Ivica Osim in 2007, and Mizuno's electric pace and adhesive dribbling soon attracted interest when Scottish giant Celtic came panning for more of the gold that made Shunsuke Nakamura such a sensation in Glasgow.

But there the success story ends. Mizuno made only 11 appearances in 2 1/2 seasons at Parkhead, and returned to the J. League with Kashiwa last summer only to damage knee ligaments less than five minutes into his first game for the club.

With Reysol eventually gaining promotion to the first division and Mizuno now close to regaining full fitness, however, the player can at last turn his mind to a brighter future.

"We've just come up from J2 so it will be a hard season, but last year we were able to establish our style and we are aiming to make progress," he said at the club's training ground this week.

"Personally, I got injured last season and was only able to play one game, so I want to win my place in the team as soon as possible. Now I'm able to kick the ball and run at full pace, and my aim is to be ready for the start of the season."

With confidence already bruised from his time at Celtic, the season-ending injury could not have come at a worse time for Mizuno. Personal experience, however, taught the Shizuoka Prefecture native the importance of positive thinking.

"When I found out the extent of the injury, at first it was a big shock," he said. "I had just come to the club and I was brought in as a reinforcement to help win promotion, so I felt like I had let the team down. Facing the manager was really difficult.

"I had injuries in Scotland, and the hardest aspect of it is how it affects you mentally. How you deal with it is the most important thing, and you have to make sure you keep your motivation up. It's been a difficult six months, but now I'm looking forward to playing again."

Mental fortitude is something Mizuno has had to learn the hard way. His first taste of action at Celtic came 10 months after joining the club, and the player admits his morale wavered along the way.

"Celtic is a team with lots of internationals from different countries, so it was tough," he said. "On top of that I had injuries and other things that were piling up and stopping me getting started. Then I got in the team, and in terms of maintaining my motivation and giving me something to aim for that was very important. You need to have that strong feeling."

A first start — and a well-taken goal — came against Falkirk, and one week later Mizuno was lining up for one of the most important games in Celtic's season — the Old Firm derby against archrival Rangers.

"It was an away game in front of a big crowd, and the atmosphere was amazing — unlike anything I've ever experienced," he said. "It was something I really enjoyed, and to be able to take part in a game like that is the biggest achievement of my career. I want to work hard and improve here so that I can sample an atmosphere like that again in the future."

While the inevitable "new Nakamura" tag did nothing to help Mizuno forge his own path in Glasgow, the older Japanese player proved an invaluable mentor for his young apprentice. When Nakamura left Celtic for Espanyol in the summer of 2009, however, Mizuno found himself exposed.

"Shunsuke left a lasting impression at Celtic, and he was the player the team was built around," he said. "To be able to play with a player like that and get advice from him is something that can only make me a better player. It wasn't just on the pitch, he helped me a lot off the pitch as well.

"When Shunsuke left, the team's style changed and gradually we stopped winning. When he left it was a big blow from Celtic's point of view, and for me personally to lose a fellow Japanese had a big effect."

Ultimately, Mizuno's time in Scotland was to end in failure, and the player accepts he must take his share of the blame. But the lessons of his lost years, he insists, can still be put to good use.

"I feel like I wasted my chance to play in more games," he said. "If I had gone over there and given it more, then I think I could have made it, and that's something I regret. But that will spur me on to improve here and try again.

"I went over there and couldn't really show what I could do, and I still haven't got back to the level that I was at before. I wish I had been able to show my strong points, but that is what I am aiming to do here."



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