When Lukas Podolski walks out at Saitama Stadium on July 26 for Arsenal’s final tour game against Urawa Red Diamonds, a host of good memories should come flooding back.
Five years ago, the 28-year-old was part of the Bayern Munich squad that travelled to Japan to take part in the sixth edition of the Saitama City Cup. It was a chance for Podolski to impress new manager Jurgen Klinsmann, and he made the most of it with a sensational individual display.
"European teams have found it tough going at Saitama Stadium ever since it opened in 2001"
In front of 27,000 supporters, the German international struck a hat trick in little over an hour against Asian Champions League holders Urawa Red Diamonds. His first saw him race on to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s lofted pass and lift the ball past the goalkeeper. The second was pure Podolski as he collected the ball in the area, took a touch to settle himself and then thrashed it into the top corner. But it was the third that delighted the Japanese fans most as he connected powerfully with Miroslav Klose’s pass and volleyed into the far corner from a tight angle.
Arsenal fans will be hoping for more of the same when he lines up against the same opponents this time around. After all, the Saitama City Cup - an invitational tournament that has involved the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan in recent years - tends to get the best out of Podolski.
Two years prior to his hat-trick heroics, the hard-working forward made his Bayern debut against the Reds and delivered another outstanding display - although the German side surprisingly lost 1-0. It was the second notable scalp the Japanese hosts have claimed since the cup’s inception 10 years ago - the first being against Inter Milan in 2004 - and they will be desperate for a third.
Arsenal are only the second English side to have been invited to take part in the Saitama Cup since it began in 2003. The first were Manchester United, who were held to a 2-2 draw by the Reds in front of more than 58,000 fans in 2007, and European teams have found it tough going at Saitama Stadium ever since it opened in 2001.
The ground hosted four matches at the 2002 World Cup, and the three European sides to have played there all left with just a point each. In the Saitama City Cup, only Barcelona (in 2005) and the Podolski-inspired Bayern Munich of 2008 have won there, while Feyenoord let a two-goal lead slip in the inaugural match of the competition.
"Under Serbian Mihailo Petrovic, the Reds are on an upwards trajectory and, having finished third in his first campaign at the club, they were second in the J-League at the time of writing, behind local rivals Omiya Ardija"
Arsenal should still be favourites to win on July 26, but Urawa Reds have plenty of reasons for optimism, too. Under Serbian Mihailo Petrovic, they are on an upwards trajectory and, having finished third in his first campaign at the club, they were second in the J-League at the time of writing, behind local rivals Omiya Ardija. They are the highest scorers in the top flight too, and, like Arsenal, tend to share the goals around a team committed to attacking football.
The Gunners may have had the second-best defence in the Premier League last term, but they will have to keep a close eye on the likes of Genki Haraguchi. The 22-year-old has spearheaded the Reds’ charge up the J-League this term with six goals to his name and can play either on the left flank or up front. He has been ably supported by Japan international Yosuke Kashiwagi - the box-to-box midfielder having scored four times at the time of writing - and the Reds also have four players each on three goals.
A big crowd is expected for the game against Arsenal, but Arsene Wenger will have to use all his knowledge of the Japanese game if he is to inspire his side to become the first English club ever to win the Saitama City Cup. Game on.
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