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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010

SOCCER SCENE

Nagoya flexing muscles with ambitious big-name signings


There is still plenty of time for the J. League winter transfer market to kick into full swing, but that hasn't stopped Nagoya Grampus from setting their stall out early.

Andrew McKirdy

Defeat in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day means it is now more than a decade since Nagoya last won any silverware. If the signings the club has made so far are any indication, Grampus and manager Dragan Stojkovic have serious ambitions of putting that to rights over the coming year.

As statements of intent go, luring Marcus Tulio Tanaka from Urawa Reds takes some beating. The national team defender has been arguably the best player in the J. League since the last World Cup, and turned down lucrative offers from Europe and the Middle East to join Grampus.

But the fact that Tulio left Reds to do so is highly symbolic.

Four years ago the Urawa juggernaut was gathering speed, having won the Emperor's Cup for the first time in the professional era and finishing as J. League runnerup for the previous two seasons.

The stars were beginning to align for a club that had not had much luck since the league began. The players, the fans, the financial clout and the wherewithal to use it all combined to deliver Urawa its first J. League title in 2006, before the Asian Champions League crown followed one year later.

In 2010, perhaps Tulio senses a similar chemistry brewing in Nagoya.

The ambition is certainly there. While most of the big clubs stayed quiet last summer, Grampus bought Josh Kennedy, Alessandro Santos and Igor Burzanovic — all internationals, all experienced and all expected to hit the ground running.

Now much-coveted youngster Mu Kanazaki has been added from Oita Trinita, while Colombian midfielder Danilson Cordoba has also joined from Consadole Sapporo. Defenders Maya Yoshida and Milos Bajalica have both departed, but Stojkovic is not done shopping yet.

The balance of power appears to have shifted from Urawa to Nagoya. Not necessarily on the field — Kashima Antlers' three consecutive titles shows who rules the roost there — but the power to persuade ambitious players to join a project on the rise and generate a buzz of excitement.

Stojkovic is clearly a big part of that. The Serbian's position as figurehead guarantees the club stays in the spotlight, and although failure to qualify for this year's ACL is a big blow, his achievements have bought him time.

He will need it, because Grampus are not on the cusp of glory just yet. A disappointing ninth-place league finish shows how much work is still to be done, and Brazilian striker Davi's failure to fit in last term served as a warning that Tulio's transfer is not the cast-iron guarantee of success it appears to be.

While Urawa quietly attempts to shed its "FC Hollywood" tag under manager Volker Finke, Nagoya seems quite happy to assume the mantle. With a new leading man joining an ever-growing cast, Stojkovic must take care to avoid unnecessary drama over the year ahead.



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