If Cerezo Osaka’s players are still preoccupied with thoughts of what might have been, Sunday’s game against against Ventforet Kofu should help sharpen their focus.
They held lofty title ambitions at the start of the season, but now Yuji Okuma’s men have four games left to preserve their J1 status, three of which are against fellow strugglers.
With just three league wins since the season resumed after the World Cup, Cerezo find themselves in the bottom two on merit. The stats don’t make for pretty reading: seven victories in total this season, 14 defeats, just 31 goals scored in 30 games.
As luck would have it, Sunday’s opponents arrive in pretty poor shape themselves - there are just three points separating Ventforet in 13th and Cerezo in 17th. Effectively, five teams are fighting to avoid the two remaining relegation spots.
No one expected Cerezo to be among them when Diego Forlan arrived amid much fanfare last April, the stated aim being for him to bolster an enterprising team that had finished fourth in J-League the previous season.
In that campaign, Cerezo made their mark with a youthful set-up boasting the prodigious talents of striker Yoichiro Kakitani and midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi. Although losing their respected Brazilian manager Levir Culpi, the target this season was to progress in the Asian Champions League and launch a serious J-League bid.
Ranko Popovic arrived from FC Tokyo to replace Culpi, while Forlan, still being trumpeted for his achievements at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, breezed in to add a new dimension to their style of play.
Gone was the cagey approach of Culpi, to be replaced by a more expansive, pass-and-move game under Serbian Popovic. Though the team lost their opening J1 match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, they won the three remaining games in March.
In their third ACL group game against Thailand’s Buriram United, Kakitani, Takumi Minamino and Forlan combined brilliantly in a 4-0 triumph. The Uruguayan also netted twice in each of the 2-2 derby draws against Gamba and Vissel Kobe.
Yet fortunes had begun to turn before the world’s focus shifted to Brazil in the summer, with Cerezo languishing in 13th place in the table and suffering a heavy loss in the ACL round of 16 against Marcelo Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
Out went Popovic, in came the former Hoffenheim coach Marco Pezzaiuoli. Things got steadily worse, however, not helped by Kakitani’s sale to Swiss side Basel and the flow of goals drying up from Forlan.
The German-born Pezzaiuoli’s tactics failed to inspire his new team and he paid the price by following Popovic out of the revolving door. He didn’t win a match in his three months in charge.
Cerezo president Masao Okano told reporters: “The manager has done his best since June but unfortunately the results have not been there. The goal has to be to keep our place in the first division, which is why we have had to make this tough decision.”
The tough love may be paying off. The promoted youth coach Okuma has restored some fighting spirit to the team, tightened a leaky defence, used Cacau sparingly - coaxing a couple of key goals from the former Germany international - and secured three wins to keep Cerezo’s season alive.
All this despite Yamaguchi’s season-ending injury and the recent absence of Forlan with a groin problem.
No Forlan, maybe, but they are not yet forlorn.