Thursday’s AFC Champions League draw will begin yet another attempt by J-League clubs to bring the continental trophy back to the land of the rising sun.
The end of 2014 marks six full years since a Japanese team last won the tournament, when Gamba Osaka triumphed with a 5-0 aggregate win over Adelaide United in 2008. Just four of the 24 J-League entrants since 2008 have reached the quarterfinals, with only two – 2009’s Nagoya Grampus and 2013’s Kashiwa Reysol – achieving a semifinal berth.
With Japan’s 2015 allocation reduced from this year’s four direct group stage berths to three plus a third round playoff spot, there will be even more pressure for the J-League’s ACL representatives to perform.
Three of Japan’s qualifying teams having been decided, with 2008 ACL champions Gamba Osaka, 2007 winners Urawa Reds, and J-League powerhouse Kashima Antlers finishing first, second, and third respectively in the J-League. The final qualifying team will be decided when Gamba Osaka and Montedio Yamagata face off in this weekend’s Emperor’s Cup final.
“Compared to other countries, Japanese clubs don’t take the ACL as seriously as the domestic league,” Reds defender Tomoaki Makino told Football Channel Asia. “We need to adjust to the fact that the environment is different [from the J-League]. The stadiums, the hotels, the officiating standards [are different], and we have to respond appropriately to that.”
“I want us to get past the group stage and aim for the championship,” added Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. “If we can do that it will help excite the J-League and bring us attention throughout Asia.”
Japanese players’ inability to cope with rough play, often referred to as malicia by local media, has seen them struggle against the likes of more physical teams from China and South Korea. As a result, many have called for J-League clubs to sign stronger foreign players.
“Playing as a team means helping each other,” said Kashima striker Caio on Tuesday at the J-League Awards. “For me, that means demonstrating that sort of malicia on the pitch and being able to successfully explain it off the pitch.”
Should Gamba Osaka beat opponents and J1 promotees Montedio Yamagata this weekend, Reysol – who finished the J-League in fourth place this season – would see return to continental football.
“We felt like we had to return to the ACL,” Reysol striker Masato Kudo admitted. “It’s a level of football you can’t experience in the J-League.
“Losing as we did to Guangzhou Evergrande [in the 2013 semifinals] was disappointing and we want to make up for that.”