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Monday, Oct. 29, 2007

SOCCER SCENE

Osieck steps out of Buchwald's shadow


SAITAMA — Guido Buchwald was always going to be a tough act to follow, but Holger Osieck has exceeded all expectations in first season back in charge of Urawa Reds.

James Mulligan

The brief given to German coach Osieck by Mitsunori Fujiguchi when he replaced his compatriot before the start of the season was to lead Urawa as far as possible in the AFC Champions League.

The Reds had finally become champions of Japan, but Urawa president Fujiguchi wasn't going to rest until they were crowned Kings of Asia.

Osieck has more than delivered, leading the Reds to the ACL final in their first attempt as well as to the brink of a second successive league title.

Buchwald had ensured qualification for the continental competition before he departed but his legacy extended far beyond this or his bringing the J. League crown to Saitama for the first time in the club's history.

Long before the 2006 title victory, and the two consecutive Emperor's Cup titles on New Year's Days '06 and '07, Buchwald was a hero to the Urawa fans.

The former German international defender played out the twilight years of his career in the red of Urawa from 1994 to '97, partly coinciding with Osieck's first spell in charge.

He was thought of so highly that he rode a white horse around Komaba Stadium after his final match for the club.

Osieck was seemingly on a hiding to nothing at the start of the season, especially from fans who would have harbored doubts no matter who took over for their hero.

And while Fujiguchi may have made noise about the club taking Asia more seriously than the league, the most prestigious domestic honors are a club's bread and butter.

Indeed, the Reds had only won the league title once and were hardly turning their attentions to Asia to complement a domestic dynasty.

The fans were not going to settle for a season of under-achievement at home as a sacrifice to the club's ambitions in the ACL.

Osieck made sure the club did not neglect its domestic duties.

But although the Reds started well in the league, supporters were not convinced by the scrappy nature of the some of the results.

Osieck also had to contend with outbursts from star players such as Washington.

In an early ACL match, the Brazilian striker was substituted after a wretched game and threw his gloves to the ground, tore off his shirt and screamed at his coach before storming down the tunnel.

It was the first public test of Osieck's reign and the German's diplomatic response — following the Arsene Wenger School of Myopia approach of claiming not to see the incident — defused the situation.

After losing to Kawasaki Frontale early on, Urawa won 11 and drew five in a 16-match unbeaten run in the league before losing to Omiya Ardija in the Saitama derby.

Since then, a steely resolve brought five straight victories before Sunday's 0-0 game against Nagoya Grampus Eight.

The 4-2 away win over JEF United Chiba last weekend highlighted the differences between Buchwald's and Osieck's teams.

The players now seem able to relax and express themselves a little bit more, especially in the first half.

Last year, the unbelievable tension surrounding the club's quest for the title proved to be an enormous hindrance.

The Reds are no doubt now a more attractive proposition.

No longer is there the over-reliance on Washington to nick a lone goal, especially with the re-emergence of crackerjack striker Tatsuya Tanaka as an alternative.

Elsewhere, the addition of lionhearted international Yuki Abe was never going to be anything but a success, while Keita Suzuki has continued to improve under Osieck and has been nothing short of a beast in midfield.

A more adventurous approach sometimes leads to more goals conceded, but 25 goals in 30 games have been let in so far compared to 28 in 34 last year.

Surprisingly — although the prolonged absence of Washington through injury earlier this season may explain this — they have scored 54 league goals and will do well to beat the 67 of last year.

The most important thing, though, is points and the Reds are on course to beat last year's total of 72.

They have 68 points, putting them seven ahead of Gamba Osaka with four games left.

The Reds now stand just a few games from greatness, with an astonishing quadruple of league, ACL, Club World Cup and Emperor's Cup a possibility.

But no matter how the rest of the season pans out, Osieck has emerged from the shadow cast by Buchwald and his has been a triumphant return to the Saitama giants.



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