Riyadh: For Kazuki Nagasawa, the AFC Champions League has been a long-awaited opportunity to kick-start his Urawa Red Diamonds career, with Saturday’s first leg of the final in the Riyadh set to be another highlight of what has been a whirlwind few months for the midfielder.
Having never made a starting 11 in the J.League since joining the Saitama side ahead of the 2017 season, the 25-year-old was thrust into the line-up for the AFC Champions League semi-final first leg against Shanghai SIPG on September 27.
A creditable performance in the 1-1 draw saw Nagasawa retain his place in the return meeting in Saitama Stadium 2002 three weeks later, where a 1-0 win secured the club’s place in the AFC Champions League final, 10 years on from their first, and only, appearance in the tournament showpiece.
“I haven’t really played that much in the league, but in the AFC Champions League I have had the opportunity to show what I can do both defensively and going forward,” said the former JEF United player.
“I want to show what I can do in any game I play in, and no matter who the opponents are I want to show what I can do. I am aware that now is an important time for me in that respect.”
It is indeed a critical period for the Chiba-native who has since been a fixture in the Reds first team, starting all three of Urawa’s subsequent J.League ties, and scored his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win away at Sanfrecce Hiroshima on October 29.
Nagasawa’s performances on the continent have also caught the attention of Japan national team coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who included him in his squad for the recent friendly match against Brazil.
But, of course, the focus now is on Saturday and a meeting with Saudi heavyweights Al Hilal.
“As a team, and for me personally, we weren’t able to do any research on them previously,” said Nagasawa.
“But since the semi-finals, we have been really thinking about what kind of opponents they are in order to be able to head into the final with a clear image.”
With West Asia and East Asia meeting for the first time in the 2017 AFC Champions League in the climax of the competition, it will not only be a case of new faces to contend with but new places.
“I’ve never played in the Middle East before and I’m sure the climate will be really different,” added Nagasawa.
“We just have to acclimatise as quickly as possible and make sure our bodies are adjusted properly to the conditions.
“We need to be able to play the first leg of the final in the same way as if we were in Japan.”
Photos: Lagardère Sports