Yokohama v Al Ain: Japanese club hope to follow in footsteps of cousins Man City

Under the umbrella of City Football Group, Harry Kewell's side have reached Asian club football’s showpiece final

Yokohama F Marinos' Anderson Lopes celebrates scoring their second goal with Ken Matsubara during their Asian Champions League semi-final second leg against Ulsan on April 24, 2024. Reuters
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Late last July, the new club champions of Europe and owners of the English league-and-cup double visited the holders of Japan’s J-League.

Pep Guardiola, manager of the visiting squad, surveyed the opposition – the impression they made on him was favourable. “I’ve watched Yokohama and I like – a lot – what I see,” said Guardiola on the eve of a friendly that would jolt Manchester City quickly out of any pre-season complacency.

City’s last act of their epoch-making 2022/23 season had been to lift the Uefa Champions League in Istanbul, part of a historic treble. Their first half of football of the new campaign had them sinking, abruptly, to 2-0 down in Tokyo against the team that might just have claimed the AFC Champions League by the end of this month.

There would be a symmetry to that. Yokohama F Marinos, who host Al Ain in the first leg of Asian club football’s showpiece final on Saturday, are corporate cousins to City.

They are one of the 13 clubs in the City Football Group, or CFG, the umbrella body that aspires to elevate standards and cross-fertilise its expertise around member institutions spread across the globe. Right now, several of them are enjoying unprecedented success in various leagues and confederations.

But there was little fraternal kindness shown by Marinos to Guardiola’s men on the pitch that July evening last year. Certainly not in the way Anderson Lopes, the mobile Brazilian striker around whom Al Ain must devise their defensive strategy carefully, zipped past Manuel Akanji to put the Marinos into the lead. Ken Matsubara swiftly doubled the advantage.

“They are so aggressive, dynamic in their process, the build-up, in everything they do,” said Guardiola. “I say ‘Wow! Big respect'.”

Some measure of the respect would be reflected in Guardiola’s urgent half-time substitutions. Enter Erling Haaland, Phil Foden, Rodrigo and Bernardo Silva to rouse City, who ended up 5-3 winners.

At the time, Yokohama F Marinos – that "F" is in the name because at the end of the last century, another Yokohama club, the Flugels were incorporated with the Marinos; some fans still grumble about the small name change – were still defending the J-League title.

They went on to finish second in the table in 2023 – the Japanese championship runs across a calendar year – and have stumbled once or twice at this early stage of the domestic campaign. But their adventure in the elite continental competition has provided more than adequate compensation.

Their AFC Champions League journey has barely let up in its suspense and drama. In the group phase, only a head-to-head goal-difference tiebreaker could sort out the hierarchy of first, second and third places, Marinos going through by that fine margin alongside China’s Shandong Taishan at the expense of Korean club Incheon United.

Their last-16 tie, against Bangkok United, then dragged into extra time. After two more meetings with Shandong in the quarters, they then boarded the full rollercoaster over the extended course of their semi-final.

They trailed 1-0 to Ulsan Hyundai after the first leg. They were reduced to 10 men with the 30th-minute sending off of Takumi Kamijima in the home leg, where they had roared to a 3-0 lead but let the tie be pulled back level at 3-3 on aggregate by half time.

The next 75 minutes, 10 versus 11 all the way through extra time, would be brutal and the penalty shoot-out excruciatingly tense. Marinos goalkeeper William Popp emerged as the hero, saving Kim Min-woo’s spot-kick to push his side into the final.

All quite the baptism for a new manager, Harry Kewell, the Australian with a distinguished resume from a varied playing career but, it seemed, scant relevant experience as a senior club manager. Kewell had taken full charge only of clubs in England’s lower divisions before Marinos appointed him at the beginning of this year.

What Kewell did bring to the job were strong recommendations and a sort of proxy connection to Yokohama. He worked, at Glasgow Celtic, as an assistant to Ange Postecoglou, now the manager of Tottenham Hotspur. Postecoglou previously guided Marinos to a J-League title. Kewell’s immediate predecessor as Marinos coach, the man whose work Guardiola so admired last summer, was a former Australian international colleague of Kewell’s, Kevin Muscat.

Kewell has also been tuned into the City Football Group’s global vision for some time. He finished his playing career in Melbourne in 2014, just as CFG were taking their dominant stake in the club Kewell knew, historically, as Melbourne Heart. Melbourne City, as Heart now are, have become champions and serial contenders in the A-League in their decade under the CFG umbrella.

In the same year CFG reshaped Melbourne City, the group bought its minority holding – around 20 per cent – in Yokohama F Marinos, a club with a long, defining association with Nissan, who remain the most visible corporate partner.

But while the CFG influence may not be as pronounced in, say, the livery and branding of Marinos as it is at Melbourne City, the Yokohama partnership has been impactful well beyond merely arranging the odd summer fixture, like City’s visit last July.

Long-term observers of Marinos see the CFG stamp not only in off-the-field strategy, but in traces of City’s way of playing on the pitch. Marinos have developed an enduring reputation, an identity, for their style of football, something less apparent at some of Japan’s other major clubs. Spectators go to Yokohama expecting to watch a side that prioritises possession, that likes its wingers to exploit the full width of the pitch.

If there is a broad, universal CFG formula, it is, with some notable exceptions – such as the struggling, troubled French club Troyes – mostly working. It is a good time to be a top-division team in the CFG stable.

Guardiola’s City chase a fourth successive English Premier League crown, and a possible repeat of 2023’s domestic double. Girona, in which CFG holds a 47 per cent stake, have qualified for next season’s Champions League, confirming, at the weekend, that they will finish in the top four places of Spain’s La Liga with a 4-2 victory over fellow Catalans and near-neighbours, Barcelona.

It was Girona’s second emphatic win over Barca in a remarkable campaign in which they have scored goals at an almost identical rate to champions Real Madrid; they are on course to finish runners-up, and, with that, earn a ticket to next year’s Spanish Super Cup tournament in Saudi Arabia. The rise is steep. Girona have never played in a major Uefa competition before. Two-and-a-half years ago, they were in the relegation zone of Spain’s second division.

The Italian satellite of CFG, meanwhile, are, like Girona, anticipating an end of season to savour. Palermo, a club who had fallen on hard times when CFG set about reviving them in 2019, find themselves in contention for a place in the play-offs for promotion to Serie A. Five years ago Palermo were in Italy’s fourth tier.

Yokohama F Marinos have already made club history in 2024. Their previous best in the principal Asian club competition had been a quarter-final, in the 1990s.

Beat Al Ain and they will be on the way to their first Fifa Club World Cup next summer, just in time for that tournament’s expansion to include 32 teams. Among them, City. The next meeting between CFG’s Manchester flagship and its Japanese cousin could be a good deal less friendly than last July’s. It could be in a competition that has a world title at stake.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 2:43 AM