Nagai seeks home shocker
© AFP

Since the current format of the FIFA Club World Cup was introduced, no team has lost a game after scoring the first goal. The most recent side to follow the trend were Urawa Red Diamonds, who ran out 3-1 winners against Sepahan after striker Yuichiro Nagai grabbed the opener in their quarter-final match.

Speaking about his goal against the Iranians, which was also the first by a Japanese player at a FIFA Club World Cup, Nagai said modestly: "Takahito Soma set me up with a fantastic ball and all I had to do was to tap it in. So I'm very grateful to him for the assist. It was a great honour to take part in the event in the first place, but then on top of that to become the first Japanese player to score in the competition, well I'm obviously very happy."

The 28-year-old, who was named player of the tournament for the 2007 AFC Champions League, was also involved in the move on 80 minutes that ended with Sephan's Aghily putting through his own goal for Urawa's third of the evening.

Nagai, who uses his height and pace to good effect in the final third, failed to find the target for the Reds in any of the four J.League matches that followed their Champions League victory. The sequence generated just a solitary point and left the way open for Kashima Antlers to steal the domestic title from under their noses in the very last match.

With Nagai and his team-mates hugely disappointed, Urawa coach Holger Osieck felt it necessary to give his players a couple of days break before preparing in earnest for Japan 2007. "During those days off, I tried not to think about football. Instead I just focused on renewing myself, so I could come back refreshed for the Club World Cup."

In the build-up to Urawa's opening game against Sepahan, many observers expressed doubts about the team's poor form and their ability to function without Brazilian playmaker Robson Ponte.

However, such was the quality of their performance in the quarter-final that the media almost universally hailed it as their best game of the season. Nagai, whose own performance last Monday was roundly praised, explained that "losing the J.League title made us really determined to do well in this event, and that was a big factor in our opening game. I know we had a couple of scares in that match, but our defenders did very well and kept them at bay.

"The midfielders also performed well and were always looking to get forward, and you saw (Yuki) Abe and Keita (Suzuki) closing down opponents very quickly and winning back a lot of balls. Thanks to them, we were able to attack well."

Huge test
On Thursday 13th, Urawa will realise their pre-tournament goal of taking on AC Milan for a place in the final. Nagai accepted that with the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso, Inzaghi and Kaka in their ranks, the Rossoneri have a world class team and no shortage of stars, but was still adamant about the local team's chances.

"We're proud to be competing as Asian champions in a huge event like this with all the other continental champions, and we'll be doing all we can to prove ourselves against the rest of the world," continued Nagai. "It goes without saying I'd love to score against Milan. With us playing at home, we don't have to worry about all the travelling and trying to get used to a new environment. I'm also sure we'll have huge support just like we did against Sepahan and the usual excellent atmosphere."

Nagai finishes by expressing a keen desire to follow in the footsteps of players like Naohiro Takahara, Junichi Inamoto, Shinji Ono and Koji Nakata, others members Japan's golden generation who have impressed on the world stage. "I want to do all I can for my team, and if that opens a door for me to play in Europe, that would be great, as it's long been my ambition to play there," he smiled.