Tactical switch proves fatal to Kawasaki’s UCL campaign

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

It was like turning up to a Beatles concert to see the Liverpool boys blast through a set of hard rock, turning the tap on to find the water running black or waking up to find the sun hidden away for a week.

Seeing one of the most potent attacking sides anywhere in Asia withdrawing one of the continent’s most dangerous creative threats and then shutting up shop to try and defend for close to an hour against an out of sorts opponent was the world turned upside down.

Less than a day after I’d lavished the team – and their new coach – with praise the rookie Kawasaki boss, Toru Oniki, almost single-handedly cost the club their best ever chance of winning the Asian Champions League and by default sent Urawa through to the last four to complete a dramatic slate of quarterfinal matches.

The script was going pretty much exactly to plan after visiting Frontale had gone a goal up in the 19th minute of their clash after star midfielder Kengo Nakamura had played through right-back Elsinho who fired the visitors ahead.

Two key moments within two minutes a quarter of an hour later though would unravel all the good work that Kawasaki had laid down up to this point since the tournament began back in March.

Firstly Urawa, largely against the run of play, pegged a goal back in the 35th minute which in and of itself was no major cause for concern given that Frontale still held a 4-2 aggregate lead.

Two minutes after that though and the Frontale leftback Shintaro Kurumaya was justifiably shown a straight red for a tackle that went horribly wrong but even that wasn’t necessarily a hammer blow for Kawasaki – depending on how they reacted.

They reacted in the worst and most unexpected of ways.

To say it was a shock when Oniki opted to immediately withdraw the creative wizard Nakamura and bring on a defensive option in his place was a hell of an understatement.

You can extract some kind of logic from the move as the 36-year-old doesn’t have the youngest of legs but it wasn’t the move per se that was the issue, rather the clear message it sent to both sides.

It’s akin to an NFL side taking off their quarterback and placing an extra hulking lineman in his place to try and shut things out, such is Nakamura’s impact on the team.

He’s not only the most creative attacking threat he’s the master tailor who crafts the garments and by withdrawing him what it said to both sides was clear: we will no longer attack.

Remember, this is a Kawasaki side on whose fabric is woven the boldest of attacking labels and to make such a brazen concession with so long remaining was close to unfathomable.

Even worse came midway through the half when yet another creative midfielder in Ryota Oshima was also withdrawn and replaced by a defender and it appeared all but inevitable that the relentless wave of Urawa pressure would eventually break a Frontale resistance that had been only kept intact by a series of saves from the overworked goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong.

Sure enough substitute Zlatan (no, not that one!) got things going in the 70th minute before further goals from Rafael Silva and a Toshiyuki Takagi volley in the 84th and 85th minutes completed a 4-3 aggregate win that was almost impossible to see coming pre-match.

There’s a difference between being pragmatic and downright fatalistic and the tactical response by an inexperienced coach to withdraw his most important attacking player cost his side a chance at history and for that there will deservedly be some serious inquiry coming the way of Mr. Oniki and his staff.

Only a slice of fortune 24 hours earlier cost Andre Villas-Bosas a similar investigation and one that would almost certainly have ended in his dismissal, unlike the more measured response that seemingly awaits the Kawasaki boss.

Leading 4-0 from the first leg three weeks ago, somehow Shanghai SIPG (still an epic misnomer of a name up there with ATM machine or PIN number) managed to see that lead whittled away in regulation time by a Guangzhou Evergrande side that in truth could have had five or six by the break such was their overwhelming attacking display.

Both clubs then proceeded to score in extra time (where away goals no longer counted) before the man who led the southerners fight-back, Ricardo Goulart, missed his spot-kick as SIPG won the shootout 5-4.

They were the most exhilarating and gripping pair of quarterfinal ties seen in the eastern half of the draw since the modern guise of the ACL began more than a decade ago but two results that unfortunately robs the tournament of arguably the best remaining sides in the freewheeling Evergrande and Frontale outfits.

Such is life in the knockout stages of the competition but what it does mean is that one of Persepolis or Al Hilal – the semifinalists from the western half of the draw – will now likely emerge as the favourites to end a barren period from the that side of the continent with eastern nations having won 10 of the past 11 titles.

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