J.League Player of the Year Leandro Domingues and fellow Kashiwa Reysol ace Jorge Wagner may have been toying with opposition defences all season, but the platform for their attacking prowess was often laid on by defender Hiroki Sakai and midfielder Akimi Barada, both products of the freshly crowned Japanese champions' youth system.
Sakai capped an impressive campaign by being named the J.League’s Best Young Player, as well as in the divisional Team of the Year. And the 21-year-old right-back, who has been dubbed ‘a Japanese Daniel Alves’ in some quarters, is hungry for more glory at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011.
“In our first game, our only objective was to win,” Sakai told FIFA.com after Kashiwa comfortably defeated Auckland City 2-0 in Thursday’s play-off for the quarter-finals. “The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible. It was thrilling playing against a team from another country, especially in such wonderful surroundings.”
Despite the victory, Sakai is desperate for an improvement in his side’s next match against Mexico’s Monterrey. “We managed to break down Auckland, but we really struggled to finish them off," said the Japan U-22 international, who has reportedly been scouted by Santos. "We must attack more right from the start. We defended well until the end, and we snuffed out Auckland’s attacking threat. Still, we’ll have to step it up a notch for the next game.”
While Sakai has marshalled the defence, Barada has held sway in the centre of the park to allow Leandro Domingues - Kashiwa’s top scorer with 15 goals this season - and Jorge Wagner to operate more freely. Barada’s rise to prominence at Reysol is testament to the years he spent coming through the ranks at the club.
“Ever since my days in the junior and youth teams, I’ve practiced passing and controlling the ball every day," said the hard-working 20-year-old. "They are my strengths, and I think I need to keep playing to my strengths.”
The strong bonds forged between Kashiwa’s up-and-coming players were a crucial factor in the club’s remarkable run to the top-flight title just one season after winning the second-tier crown. According to Barada, this team spirit filters down through the entire club: “When I was in the youth squad, we trained against the first team quite often, and the older players always treated me kindly, so it was easy to fit in with them. It also helped me slot quickly into the first team after I turned professional.”
What is more, Sakai and Barada were both born in Kashiwa’s home prefecture of Chiba, near Tokyo, so share the supporters’ passion for the team. With the FIFA Club World Cup being Reysol's first appearance in an international tournament - they had never qualified for the AFC Champions League before 2011 - Barada is hoping to give the fans something more to cheer about in what has already been a momentous year.
“I’m really grateful to all the supporters who travelled so far to watch us play against Auckland,” he said as the conversation drew to a close. “We’ve had a taste of the FIFA Club World Cup now and, although we took a while to get going against Auckland, in our next game we want to play just like we did during the J.League season.”