Asian Champions League: Talent exodus makes it tough on Japan
While Japan's national team is on course to become the first to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Japanese clubs are finding the 2013 Asian Champions League much harder to handle with three of four representatives far from certain of advancing to the second round.
Having top talent heading to Europe in increasing numbers may have helped Japan in the international arena, including a win over France in Paris last year.
But the exodus of players has made it more difficult for domestic clubs to compete closer to home against South Korea, and increasingly, China.
Japan has had only one representative in the ACL quarter-final stage in the last three years - eight Korean clubs have reached the quarters during the same period - making the penultimate round of the group stage vital for J-League clubs this week.
Only Kashiwa Reysol appear certain to finish in the top two in their group and secure a place in the knockout stage.
The 2011 J-League champions won three of their first four group games, which is one more victory than Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Vegalta Sendai and Urawa Reds have managed collectively.
Urawa host Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the biggest clash of the week.
Guangzhou are full of stars and are under the direction of 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi.
Urawa, who won the 2007 Asian title, know that anything less than a win is likely to seal elimination.
"I still think that we can progress to the next round," Urawa's Serbian coach Mihailo Petrovic said. "We have a tough game against Guangzhou but we are ready for it."
Sendai recovered from a poor start to defeat FC Seoul of South Korea in the previous round, their first ever win in the ACL tournament. The 2012 J-League runners-up face a tough task to Buriram United of Thailand. The group is tight, with only three points separating FC Seoul in first place and China's Jiangsu Sainty in fourth.
The biggest disappointment for Japanese fans this season has been Hiroshima.
The reigning J-League champions have collected just one point from the first four games.
The Purple Archers can postpone their inevitable elimination with a win at home over group leaders Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.
Bunyokdor can progress with a win, and so can Pohang Steelers, the most successful team in Asian history with three titles.
Kashiwa Reysol were Japan's best performers in the 2012 tournament when they reached the second round and need a draw at home against China's Guizhou Renhe to do the same in 2013.
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Published: April 22, 2013 04:00 AM