Having left Singapore and Albirex Niigata (S) to return to Japan in 2010, Naoki Naruo is back pulling the strings of the White Swans, and he has some unfinished business...
Back in 2009, then-Albirex Niigata head coach Naoki Naruo endured a difficult S.League campaign, finishing in an underwhelming seventh position by the club’s high standards.
Now, the 41-year-old is back in charge of the Japanese-based club after five years in his homeland, where he managed to promote Grulla Morioka – a team made up of semi-professionals – to J-League 3, a coaching experience which he labeled invaluable.
While his achievements in Japan are admirable, he now faces a daunting task once more of managing a new-look Albirex squad.
Of course there will be challenges and pressure, but we are ready to win the title
The club no longer has star man Fumiya Kogure in its ranks, after he left for Hougang United, while Naruo still has to meet the expectations of his chairman Daisuke Korenaga, who has said that his target for the upcoming season is to compete for all four domestic titles.
However, Naruo believes that he can manage the expectations to win the S-League title, an achievement the club has so far failed to realise since its inception in 2004.
“Of course there will be challenges and pressure for us to win, but all of us from the team are ready to win the title. If we can show our ability, we should be able to win,” he said.
Undoubtedly, Albirex had their best campaign last year under head coach Tatsuya Okuyama, winning the Singapore Cup and the League Cup. Yet they have since lost some key players.
The club lost the likes of Shun Inaba, Takahiro Saito, Hikaru Mizuno, Rion Taki and Itsuki Yamada – who were essential for Albirex in winning the two titles.
But the biggest blow has to be the departure of last season’s S-League player of the year Kogure. Naruo claims, however, that Albirex will soldier on despite the significant loss of experience.
“Of course when he was here, (Kogure) was the team’s key player. But for me, I don’t focus on individual players – I focus more on the team and what each player can do with their abilities.”
By focusing more on the team, Naruo says there will be plenty of emphasis on possession football.
The two new players Naruo hopes can provide a boost are Kazuki Mine and Atsushi Kawata. Mine is a 1.9m forward from J. League 2 side Kyoto Sanga, while high expectations lie on Kawata, who is tipped to be the team’s fulcrum.
“With Mine’s height and physique, he will hold up the ball and bring others into play with his physical side and I expect plenty of goals and assists to come from Kawata,” Naruo said.
While Albirex have added some talent, many other clubs have also been busy strengthening their squads, particularly Tampines Rovers with the signing of former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine pennant.
Since Lions XII was disbanded, many of the local clubs have benefitted too, with many national players filtering back into the league – but none of these movements bother Naruo, who insists on focusing on his team rather than the opponents.
“I think there’s no problem for us,” he said. “ Brunei DPMM and Tampines look the strongest for me. Having said that, I have a new team and as the head coach I will analysis the tactics and will decide the game plan for the matches ahead.”
He added: “For us to have a successful season, the beginning of the season will be vital – to get points and get momentum and have the confidence in ourselves to win the trophies.”
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Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo