Despite a short offseason, how have preparations gone for 2016?
Our season finished with the loss in the Emperor’s Cup semifinal on December 29, but I began training independently on January 3. Instead of taking time off, I wanted to make sure I was staying active and refreshed. I can relax after I retire. We’re motivated to win another title, and I think having a short offseason allowed us to stay in good condition.
Should expectations for the AFC Champions League (ACL) be high after last year’s third-place finish in the FIFA Club World Cup?
Winning several league championships is an important accomplishment, but this year we’re more conscious about wanting to compete in both competitions. Last year Gamba Osaka reached both the J.League Championship and the ACL semifinal; they also played in the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup final and won the Emperor’s Cup. We’d like to win a double including the ACL, and the players are starting to understand their responsibilities. You need a strong will to compete in two tournaments at once, and as a team I think we’re on track.
How do you think Sanfrecce have improved?
As coach [Hajime] Moriyasu has said recently, we have the depth we need and we can play well no matter which players we use. And now that we’ve reached that point, we can contend in two competitions. You need a comprehensive squad to compete in the ACL and J.League, and in that sense the FIFA Club World Cup was a result of all of our efforts. We have a busy schedule and it won’t be easy for the entire team to train together, but it’s important that whoever plays can earn results.
How important was the short transition from the J.League Championship to the Club World Cup?
The Championship Series and FIFA Club World Cup were proof of our potential. Any of our players are good enough to be in the starting line-up and we’ve seen that in training. But we can only have 18 players on the bench, and even those who didn’t get many minutes in the regular season demonstrated their abilities in December. We were also strong at the beginning of the season, but it’s great that we were able to come together on such a big stage and we want that to continue.
Has the significance of the ACL changed for the team?
Being able to appear in the Club World Cup is a big deal. We appeared as host representatives but we want to appear as Asian champions. If another J.League club wins the ACL, the host berth disappears. Playing in the Club World Cup makes you more aware of the rest of the world. We all watched Guangzhou Evergrande versus Barcelona, while Urawa Reds have played Milan and Gamba Osaka faced Manchester United. It’s exciting for the fans to see Japanese clubs take on European clubs in competitive matches, and it’s a big motivation for the players.
Your third-place Club World Cup finish may put a target on your back.
I’m sure a lot of observers in Asia were impressed by how we did, and because of that we have to step up in the ACL and prove that December wasn’t a lucky run. We were praised highly for that performance and we have a duty to show that we deserve that praise.
Why do you think J.League teams have struggled recently in the ACL?
Other clubs’ attitudes toward the ACL have changed dramatically. When you look at this transfer window and how much money Chinese clubs have spent on European players, all of that talent is going into the ACL. If we can’t beat those teams we can’t win the tournament. It’s a much tougher competition than in previous years and we have to be prepared for that.
What does Sanfrecce need to compete against these teams?
We’ve won three J.League titles in four years and I think compared to other club we have more experience winning. Other teams might rely on a couple key players, and if they’re suspended or injured, that team can’t play to their true ability. Our greatest strength is that whoever’s on the pitch, we can still play as a team.
What’s the key to winning in the ACL?
The minimum goal is to get through the group stage. If you really want to win the ACL you can’t struggle there. 2014’s loss to Western Sydney Wanderers on away goals in the Round of 16 taught us the importance of controlling the game both at home and away.
-How do you face the challenge of China’s investments in top players?
They’re making these big moves in order to win the ACL, and we have to stand up to them. And that’s why we have to be organised as a team. If we can improve individually, we’ll improve as a squad.
What’s your outlook for the season?
This season we’ll wear three stars over our crest, and those are proof of the history we’ve written as a club. Our goal this season is to add a fourth star.
Can Sanfrecce win the ACL?
We want to win. I don’t think we can say “we have to win” yet. But we want to win. We want to go back to the Club World Cup, not as Japanese representatives but as Asian champions.