Pressure is mounting on Japanese clubs to emulate the regional dominance of their national side as the Asian Champions League kicks off today, with J-League sides looking to break a five-year drought in the continental competition.
The J-League has fallen behind its South Korean and Chinese domestic counterparts in recent years, with Gamba Osaka’s 2008 title followed by three South Korean wins and the victory by a Marcello Lippi-led Guangzhou Evergrande of China last season.
Japan, along with Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has four representatives in the 32-team tournament, which is divided into west and eastern zones until the quarter-final stage.
J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima are the leading contender, despite having crashed out in last year’s group stage without a single victory.
“Last year, we were not technically or tactically inferior, but overpowered by our opponents’ physical strength,” said Sanfrecce coach Hajime Moriyasu, who led the club to a second successive J-League title in 2013.
“We need to win our home games. The teams that compete in the AFC Champions League use different tactics when playing home or away. We have to get those vital three points in our own stadium.”
Cerezo Osaka boast veteran Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, who signed this month in a deal reportedly worth US$5.6 million (Dh20.6m). The 2010 World Cup Golden Boot winner will link up with highly rated Japanese international Yoichiro Kakitani.
Forlan is not the only big-name import looking to make his mark, with Italy international Alessandro Diamanti joining Guangzhou in their quest to become the first team since 2005 to defend the title.
“I know Guangzhou is the champion, but it will not be easy to win the title again,” Diamanti said.
South Korea teams have contested the past five finals and boast 10 continental titles in total. With talent being lost to the increasingly lucrative Chinese Super League, a continuation of such success will be challenging, despite three of its four representatives – Jeonbuk Motors, Ulsan Horangi and Pohang Steelers – all having lifted the trophy in the past decade.
The other Korean representative is 2013 runners-up FC Seoul. Two of the club’s biggest stars, Dejan Damjanovic and Ha Dae-sung, left for Chinese teams in deals worth over $9m combined.
“Ha and Dejan are big losses for the team,” midfielder Yun Il-rok said. “But Seoul are still strong as a team and it does not matter so much about the specific players,” Yun said.
* Associated Press