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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007

SOCCER SCENE

Reds on verge of historic quadruple, but manager Osieck won't talk about it


Urawa Reds have more than a bit of the Manchester Uniteds about them.

James Mulligan

They have the fans, the money, the red shirts; they come from a city north of the capital. They were even once called MUFC — Mitsubishi Urawa FC.

They also have the success. The reigning Japanese double holders play the first leg of the AFC Champions League final against Iran's Sepahan on Wednesday, have one hand on another league title, and if successful in securing either title, will qualify for the Club World Cup in December. The defense of their Emperor's Cup is still to come.

The Manchester United comparison is a fair one, with both giants of their respective leagues, but the Saitama club actually models itself more on Bayern Munich, with an official affiliation existing between the two clubs.

The German connection extends to the Urawa coaching staff. Holger Osieck, Franz Beckenbauer's assistant when Germany won the World Cup in 1990, is in his second spell at the club.

Osieck, who led Canada to Gold Cup glory in 2001 and was FIFA's head of technical development from 2004 to early 2007, has presided over a season exceeding the expectations of the Reds board.

Urawa president Mitsunori Fujiguchi, a former forward and midfielder for Mitsubishi in the old Japan Soccer League, had demanded the Reds, unlike previous Japanese clubs who looked down upon the quality of other Asian clubs, take the ACL seriously as a way to grow the Reds brand throughout Asia.

Winning the tournament was the ultimate goal, but Fujiguchi wasn't expecting the Reds to be so close, so quick to realizing this dream.

The credit for this goes to Osieck, faced with the tricky task of taking over from Guido Buchwald, a man beloved by the Reds fans as a coach and player after the German World Cup winner spent four years with the club in the 1990s.

For all his success, though, Osieck isn't in the mood to hear any flights of fantasy about an unprecedented four-trophy haul being in the offing.

"Stop writing about quadruples!" Osieck said to me during a lighthearted conversation last weekend after his team's 0-0 draw against Nagoya Grampus Eight, which put the Reds seven points clear in the J. League with four games left.

"It's a possibility, though, isn't it Holger?" I responded.

He wasn't falling for that. "No, it is not! I don't need this!"

Osieck may be loath to speculate, but the Reds are closing in on a fair bit of silverware and it'll be quadruples all around if they land the league and ACL double.

Next up then would be the Club World Cup in December and a potential match against AC Milan. The Italians are formidable opponents, but ones currently out-of-sorts, and a trip to Japan midseason may not be the most welcome of distractions amid their domestic woes.

After the CWC, hopefully the quest for a third successive Emperor's Cup — a title they know how to win.

Not everything is rosy in the Reds camp, however.

Agitator-in-chief is striker Washington. He was once deemed good enough to play for Brazil and still scores important goals, but milk turns quicker than the 32-year-old these days and Osieck is right to believe Washington is on the wane.

The first signs of a spat between Washington and Osieck came in an ACL match earlier this season.

After missing a hatful of chances, Washington was subbed by Osieck. The striker tore off his gloves and shirt and threw them to the ground before storming down the tunnel while screaming at his coach.

Last weekend, a similar thing happened when the striker was hauled off at the tail end of the game against Nagoya.

After the match, Washington laid into his coach for not having the guts to go for the win that would have all-but wrapped up the title.

"We wanted to win but the coach was playing for a draw. We could have gotten the three points but instead we got one, which isn't enough. Now the next games will be more difficult for us," Washington told reporters.

The striker may be on his way out, but asked by reporters after the Nagoya match whether he would stay at the club beyond the end of the season, Washington said, "I'm happy with the club. I'd like to stay."

A few days later, following reported showdown talks between the pair after the Nagoya match, a chastised Washington was reported to have said, "He told me he was the boss and the players obey his decisions."

Washington was in a far happier mood just four days before the Nagoya match.

The Brazilian had scored a thunderous opener in the second leg of the Reds' ACL semifinal against South Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa, and despite being held to a 2-2 draw, Urawa went through after a penalty shootout in front of 55,000 at Saitama Stadium.

That epic semifinal win came at a cost, though.

Captain Nobuhisa Yamada is out of both legs of the final after tearing a calf muscle in the victory and aggravating it against Nagoya, while Japan international Marcus Tulio Tanaka is expected to miss the first leg after picking up a thigh strain against Seongnam and the central defender is doubtful for the Nov. 14 return leg in Saitama.

Reports coming from the Reds training camp in Dubai also suggest there is a question mark over the fitness of midfielder Keita Suzuki.

Bloodied but unbowed, the Reds were scheduled to arrive in Esfahan, Iran, on Tuesday ahead of their first-ever appearance in the continental final.

Sepahan, which beat Kawasaki Frontale on penalties in the quarterfinal before easing past United Arab Emirates' Al Wahda in the last four, is also making it first appearance in the final.

The Iranians have already qualified for the Club World Cup playoff against New Zealand side Waitakere United, due to a FIFA rule forbidding two Japanese teams from taking part in the competition.

Victory in the ACL final would put them in the competition proper, with the Reds taking their place in the CWC playoff if, as is likely, they win the J. League.



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