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Apr 6, 2011

Asian flavour to Schalke rout

The last three times that Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo have been on the same pitch have been in matches that generated very different emotions. The pair starred in the Asian Cup final in January as Japan defeated Australia to take a fourth continental crown, then, on March 29, they both lined up for the national team against a J-League Select XL in Osaka to raise money for victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that had hit their homeland.

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Then came Tuesday at San Siro as Nagatomo's Inter hosted Uchida's Schalke. No longer were two of Asia's biggest stars lining up on the opposite side of the Samurai Blue defence, they were lining up on opposite sides of the field in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final in one of the greatest arenas in world football. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese media was there in force.

They couldn't have wished for more to write about as it was a match that more than lived up to expectations. By the time Nagatomo got the nod from coach Leonardo to get stripped and get on, the champions were 5-2 down. It is debatable whether the pocket-sized left back even wanted to enter an arena that had obviously been deserted by the gods of defending for the previous 76 minutes, a divine example that a growing number of fans were starting to follow.

Nagatomo was faced by Uchida, a right-sided friend and compatriot in a much better mood. The Schalke star had watched, probably as open-mouthed as everyone else, in the opening minute as Dejan Stankovic put the Italians ahead with an amazing volley from the centre-circle following a headed clearance from German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. It would be a special goal anytime and anywhere but in the first 30 seconds of a Champions League quarter-final at a packed San Siro, it was sensational.

It would be hard to follow such a start and Inter never came close. Sure, Diego Milito restored their lead in the 34th minute after Joel Matip had cancelled out Stankovic's scorcher but by then the Koenigsblauen had the vital away goal and cracks were evident in the Nerazzurri backline. Still black-and-blue from their derby defeat last weekend, it soon got worse as Edu struck to send the teams in level at the break.

Inter, better going forward these days than in defence, had chances at the start of the second half but before the hour mark they were seriously regretting their wastefulness as a cool Raul finish and then an own goal from Andrea Ranocchia - one that must have happened in slow-motion for Italian fans - put the Germans firmly in control. If that wasn't enough, Cristian Chivu was soon sent off for a second yellow. The absence of the Romanian, following his second dismissal in four days, didn't excuse the subsequent chaotic defending that ended in Edu shooting home in style from the edge of the area to send the Schalke staff on the sidelines wild with delight, and the locals heading for the exits.

When you consider that the Brazilian was a fan favourite during his three seasons in the Korean league with Suwon Bluewings before heading to Germany and that Ali Karimi of Iran made a late appearance as a substitute for Schalke, then it was a good night for Asian fans. It would have been perfect if China's Hao Junmin had made it off the bench too.

It was certainly a great night for Uchida and few neutrals would begrudge the unassuming 23-year-old that. Of all the Japanese moves to Europe in the past year or so, the one involving the right-sided defender, who glides down the wing as Nagatomo scurries, has not been the story it could have been due to a number of factors. These include the growing number of players heading to Germany from Japan, the massive impact that Shinji Kagawa had at Borussia Dortmund, the fact that the Gelsenkirchen giants have had a mediocre season domestically and Nagatomo's move to the European champions on the dramatic final day of the winter transfer window.

The headlines that surrounded Nagatomo's move were understandable as it capped a rise that really had been meteoric. Uchida arrived in Germany from the all-conquering J-League powerhouse Kashima Antlers but a year ago Nagatomo was playing in an FC Tokyo team that was destined for relegation to Japan's second tier. Since departing for Serie A and Cesena last summer, he has won the Asian Cup and joined one of the world's biggest clubs on loan. He had impressed at Cesena but still, he spoke for his compatriots when he said after being whisked to Milan: "I didn't expect what happened. But now I am here to give my maximum. I am very happy to be at Inter with the world champions. Now I'll have to show that I know how to play football."

He does, but for his critics it hasn't always been enough. Even when being named the J-League Rookie of the Year in 2008, he divided opinion. For all those who loved how he contributed to the attack, his trademark break down the wing and perfect cross that set up Japan's winner against Australia in Doha a case in point, there were concerns about his solidity at the back - though Uchida is equally happy when heading across the halfway line.

There are less concerns these days, not least because Nagatomo has done the business in a country that has a reputation for knowing a good defender when it sees one, though just like the Inter backline, that image took a little bit of a battering on Tuesday. He is still on loan and it remains to be seen what happens at the end of the season, though the future looks almost as uncertain for others on longer-term contracts at the club.

What does look likely is that there will be no more Champions League football played on Italian soil this season, but Asian interest will continue whatever happens. The last time that two players from the world's largest continent played at the semi-final stage of the world's biggest club competition was back in 2005. The Korean duo of Lee Young-pyo and Park Ji-sung produced some of their best performances in PSV Eindhoven's run, which was finally ended by Milan only in the last minute of the semi-final. By that time however, Lee had given Cafu a torrid time and Park scored a famous goal. Just two months later, he was on his way to Manchester United.

Park could be waiting at the same stage again, if his team can get past Chelsea, ready to face Uchida. And if there is an Iranian and a Chinese player in action too, then for Asian fans, it could really be a night worth staying up for.

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