Continental challenges bring out the best in us, says Urawa's Makino
Saitama: Urawa Red Diamonds defender Tomoaki Makino believes that the 2019 AFC Champions League has seen the Saitama club raise their game to new heights, despite domestic woes, ahead of Wednesday's semi-final first leg against Guangzhou Evergrande.
Two-time Continental champions Urawa have endured an odd 2019 so far.
Torrid form in the J.League sees them hovering nervously close to the relegation zone, while they recently suffered a humiliating elimination in the Emperor's Cup against amateur side Honda FC.
Yet on the Continent, Urawa are echoing shades of their 2017-winning side. Progression from a tough Group G was followed by impressive wins over Ulsan Hyundai (Round of 16) and Shanghai SIPG (quarter-finals), both clubs that are flying high in their respective domestic leagues.
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And so, despite Saturday's disappointing draw away at third from bottom Sagan Tosu, charismatic centre-back Makino is still in confident mood ahead of their clash with Guangzhou, the side who currently top the Chinese Super League.
"We are struggling on the domestic front, but it's true that we play better in the AFC Champions League," said the 32-year-old Japan international.
"In this tournament, we face different opponents, many of whom are players of the highest quality, and the schedules are always tough. But we thrive on that as those things make us better too, and we feel our improvement in every game.
"Ideally, we should have a consistent performance in any game and against any team, domestic and Continental, but we simply feel better in the AFC Champions League.
"I think the level of opponents, the atmosphere created, the support from the stands, it all heightens our energies and abilities. We just really enjoy playing in this tournament."
"For me personally, as a defender, I play against great attackers in this tournament, that’s extra motivation for me. The AFC Champions League has helped me increase my level as a player. I still feel my improvement, even at this age, so I do enjoy taking part in it."
In terms of opponents Makino and his teammates have faced so far in the tournament, the players that Guangzhou can call on is as impressive as they come.
A deadly Brazil-born trio of Elkeson, Paulinho and Anderson Talisca are complimented by exciting young China PR attackers in Wei Shihao and Yang Liyu.
Further back, Guangzhou veteran midfielders Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen are two-time AFC Champions League winners and among the most experienced players in the Continental tournament.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Guangzhou is big club," admits Makino. "They have money, talented foreign players and good domestic players.
"Every time we played against them it turned out to be a fierce battle. Like I said, great opponents make us even better because we need to raise our game in order to cope with them.
"While we of course need to be careful of the likes of Talisca, Elkeson and Paulinho, we know there are good Chinese and Korean players too."
"I think Guangzhou is a great team as a whole with good players."
Should Urawa wish to replicate their feat of two years ago, it could well be essential that they record a positive result from the first meeting at Saitama Stadium on Wednesday.
Guangzhou have endured a poor away record - failing to win on the road in the 2019 AFC Champions League - but they are dominant at their home fortress of Tianhe Stadium with 21 matches unbeaten in Asia.
Makino, too, is well aware of the importance of taking an advantage into the return meeting in three weeks.
"To progress from the semi-finals, the result from the first leg at home is crucial," he said. "We know Guangzhou are strong at home, but we are confident playing at our home stadium too.
"Our opponents always feel pressure from the huge numbers of home supporters who attend our games."
"Our record against Guangzhou is good but, it is already in the past, it is just statistics, and the current team is different with new players.
"My main aim is that I want to get a clean sheet in the first leg, no away goals given to them!"
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