Bangkok: As Nagoya Grampus prepares for his long-awaited return to the AFC Champions League, Yoichiro Kakitani has admitted he is aiming for the Japanese team to be crowned continental champions.
Nagoya last appeared in the competition in 2012 when they reached the round of 16, after which they suffered a drop in fortune which resulted in relegation to second tier in 2016 before returning to the top tier one. year later.
After a period of restoration, Nagoya then returned to the upper echelons of the J1 League, with a third place last season ensuring a direct entry into the 2021 AFC Champions League and Kakitani now aims to continue the upward trajectory.
“I have been extremely excited and motivated to play in the competition since signing for Nagoya,” admitted Kakitani, who joined Cerezo Osaka earlier in 2021.
“Nagoya Grampus are such a huge club in Japan and are expected to play in the AFC Champions League every year, so it’s strange that we’ve been there for nine years.
“Our goal is to win the tournament. Some of the strongest teams in Asia compete in this competition but, when you participate in it, you have to aim to become champion. I have played in the AFC Champions League before. but, as a Nagoya player, I want to do better than I’ve ever done before. “
In the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Nagoya’s success largely hinges on a solid backline, with the team having the meanest defense in the J1 League last year and the second-best in the current campaign.
Last season, Australian goalkeeper Mitch Langerak broke the J1 League record for most clean sheets in a single campaign (17) before Nagoya had nine incredible successive shutouts this season.
“As a team we are working hard together to create a strong defense; we are well known for that in the J1 League and we will be building that characteristic into the AFC Champions League,” said Kakitani, 31.
“Our goal is to have an organized defensive unit and then build the attacks from there. However, we are not just a defensive team because we have a lot of good forwards who can score.
“Of course it would be great to score more goals, but the most important thing is to win the game. We know the goal difference could be a factor as well, so I’ll do my best to score goals.”
In Nagoya’s first season in the AFC Champions League in nearly a decade – and Kakitani’s first with the club – they were drawn in Group G alongside Koreans Pohang Steelers, from Johor Darul Ta’zim from Malaysia and Ratchaburi Mitr Phol from Thailand.
As the opener against JDT on Tuesday marks Nagoya’s long-awaited return, Kakitani appeared in the 2014 and 2018 editions with Cerezo, scoring against Pohang in the first as his goals helped his home club qualify for the round of 16.
“We are all excited to face Pohang; Korea is a good country but also a rival country so it will be a battle of pride and spirit and it should be a great game. I think Pohang has improved a lot. recently, so I expect this game to be the toughest in the group stage. ” Kakitani noted.
“But Ratchaburi has a home advantage and the Thai teams have really improved in the last few years so we will have to stay fully focused. We have also seen footage of JDT and they are well organized and playing well as a unit, we have to so be aware of their strengths. “
As Kakitani says, focus on the pitch will be key, but the mindset of players away from Rajamangala Stadium will also be crucial as Nagoya prepares to play six games in the span of just 16 days while remaining in a ‘related to COVID. bubble ‘in Bangkok.
“We have no choice but to face this situation and we have to stay focused on the matches ahead as it is three important weeks to reach our goal. We have to overcome the difficulties with patience,” Kakitani added. .
“So many matches in a short period will test the strength of our team. We have to recover after every game and stay in good condition to achieve positive results. Rotation will be an important factor, so everyone has to be prepared. to play. “
Photos: Nagoya Grampus