x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Goals are not lost in translation for Al Nasr's Takayuki Morimoto

His coach and new teammates like him but Japanese player made a bigger splash when he scored during his debut against Al Shaab, writes John McAuley.

In his debut with Al Nasr on Wednesday night, Japanese player Takayuki Morimonto scored to help lift the team to a 6-1 win over Al Shaab.
In his debut with Al Nasr on Wednesday night, Japanese player Takayuki Morimonto scored to help lift the team to a 6-1 win over Al Shaab.

Takayuki Morimoto must have wondered if he had read the brochure wrong.

The Japan striker was unveiled as Al Nasr's new signing on Sunday – a six-month loan deal from Italy's Serie A – although he was welcomed at Al Maktoum Stadium by an unusually blustery evening.

Morimoto, sporting a grey, short-sleeved T-shirt and a freshly shaved buzz cut, seemed rather confused. So much for swapping the Land of the Rising Sun for something a little more permanent.

His daze deepened further following instructions for photographs with teammates and Nasr dignitaries; Morimoto's English is clearly as proficient as his latest employers' Japanese.

Luckily, though, he had at hand Walter Zenga, his new coach but old friend. The pair bonded during a full season together at Catania, and now Zenga, guiding in his native tongue, played the nervous father on his youngest's first day at school.

However, Morimoto might just prove to be the teacher's pet.

"I'm very lucky to have this kind of player in my squad," Zenga enthused. "He never gives up, never ever leaves a chance. We hope he can help us reach as high a position [in the Pro League] as we can."

Such optimism has foundation. Under Zenga, Morimoto enjoyed his best Serie A campaign in his five years there, scoring 10 times in 25 appearances across all competitions.

Until then, he has never quite fulfilled his potential. Sure, a goal five minutes into his debut in January 2007 – the equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Atalanta – provided an emphatic entrance to his career in Sicily.

And he had a similarly swift success on his debut for Nasr, netting 14 minutes into the 6-1 Etisalat Cup thrashing of Al Shaab on Wednesday.

Despite bright beginnings, Morimoto's time in Italy would soon be blighted by injuries and circumstance.

Originally on loan at the Stadio Angelo Massimino from Tokyo Verdy 1969, a J League side who in his time there counted Osvaldo Ardiles among their managers, the young attacker secured a permanent transfer at the end of his first season.

Suspicion tainted the move. Morimoto had begun life well in Italy, but common conjecture suggested his presence at the club was driven purely by commercial desires. Hidetoshi Nakata had established the model in 1998, when Perugia signed the 18 year old and spiked interest in Japan and throughout east Asia - a practice long since favoured by the club's seated outside Serie A's top table.

Whether true or not, Morimoto set about changing public perception.

"He is a cool finisher and showed he could cope with the hard physical challenges in the Italian league," said Pasquale Marino, his first coach at Catania, who employed Morimoto as a central striker.

Direct and with a burst of acceleration that troubled defenders, he collected nicknames as easily as plaudits, including "Maremoto" (Tsunami), "Terremoto" (Earthquake) and "Morimotorshow". The latter somewhat confused, yet a footballing Mazda was quickly restyled a Maserati.

"Surely the Japanese player Morimoto," remarked Alexandre Pato, AC Milan's talented Brazilian, in 2009 when asked to name the league's best young player. "He reminds me a lot in his movements of my idol Ronaldo."

The validity of Pato's comments aside – players are often advised by artful agents eyeing commercial gain to salute their Japanese peers – Morimoto proved his worth in that solitary season, before damage to his knees and a series of muscular problems began to take their toll.

So, too, did the presence within the Catania squad of players such as Giuseppe Mascara and Maxi Lopez: experienced names sometimes deemed more reliable. Increasingly on the margins, Morimoto was loaned for the 2011/12 season to Novara, a newly promoted club in Italy's north-west.

Again, injury curtailed his contribution as Novara swiftly stamped their ticket for a return to Serie B. Morimoto alighted back at Catania.

And so to Nasr, a foreign frontier that offers comfort in familiar faces. Not only does Morimoto know Zenga, but he will seek solace in the warm smile of Mascara, who joined the Dubai club last summer.

The frontmen shared five years across Catania and Novara, Mascara remembering fondly the emergence of an enthusiastic 18 year old during those early days in Sicily.

"I saw then that Takayuki had good potential, even at such a young age," Mascara told The National. "He played mostly in the reserves at first, but after a year moved up to the first team and immediately started to score.

"He was beginning his career as a real professional but, just as he was at the peak of his form, injuries stopped him."

Morimoto should represent a good fit for Nasr, a side that regularly deployed the Iraqi Nashat Akram, the player whom Morimoto replaces, in an unfamiliar role as the furthest man forward. And Dubai should provide a suitable setting for the forward, 24, for the emirate famed for its reputation as a record-breaker has attracted the youngest scorer in J League history.

Born in Kawasaki, a heavily populated city between Tokyo and Yokohama, in 2004 Morimoto landed at Tokyo Verdy 1969, one of his country's most decorated sides.

At 15 years and 10 months he became the youngest J League debutant, and two days before his 16th birthday struck his first goal. Despite relegation the following season, Catania came calling.

"Like most Japanese players, Takayuki is very closed emotionally, not expressive like Latin Americans," Mascara said. "But he is a nice guy. When he is close to you he is very funny; you can joke with him no problem.

"He is like my brother."

Should Morimoto, a former Japan international of 10 caps and three goals, excel between now and the conclusion of this season's Pro League, the temporary will surely become the permanent.

"It's a question also regarding his age," Zenga said. "He's very young - only 24 - and shows we're thinking about the future of this club."

Mascara, who gleaned from that special season in 2008/09 his best goal return, is in little doubt Morimoto will succeed.

"Even if I don't explain to Takayuki about football here it is not a problem," he said. "Because he's always serious in training; his application and attitude every time is good.

"At Catania, we enjoyed a good feeling on and off the pitch, trying always to put our strong relationship into our performances. And, in wanting him here, coach Zenga has showed first of all it's because he knows about the man, and then what he can do on the pitch. That is why Takayuki is here."

The feeling, it appears, is mutual.

"I know the manager very well and that's the reason I came," said Morimoto through an interpreter on that chilly night last Sunday. "I'm excited and looking forward to playing. And attempting to get as many goals as possible."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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