There was a point towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering reign at Manchester United when the fiery Scot’s stance towards Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team changed drastically. Praise for the way the Gunners played and ability of their coach and players replaced the sniping and accusations that had underlined the period between 1997 and 2003, when the two had constantly been at loggerheads as they dominated the Premier League.
For many in England this was not a sign of Ferguson mellowing as he neared retirement, but purely a signifier that he no longer saw the side from north London as a threat. Indeed, since the famous ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003-04 Arsenal have not won the league, while United managed to endure the challenges of newly-rich Chelsea then Manchester City to claim a further five titles before Ferguson opted to step down in 2013.
For the best part of the last decade J.League teams have fulfilled the ‘Arsenal’ role when it comes to Asian football – with Japanese sides constantly earning praise for the way they play, but failing to win the ACL since 2008, when Gamba succeeded Urawa Reds as the continental champions.
This point was highlighted on Tuesday night at Hitachi Stadium, as China’s Guangzhou Evergrande cruised past a lacklustre Kashiwa Reysol to all but confirm their place in the semi-finals with 90 minutes still to play.
There were suggestions in some quarters that Reysol were unlucky to lose 3-1, with attention being drawn to the fact that all three of Evergrande’s goals came from set-pieces – one of which was an utterly unstoppable effort from a player who a little over a year ago was playing for Brazil at the World Cup.
Kashiwa’s defeat was far more comprehensive than that, though, and from the hour-mark on – by which point the visitors were 3-0 up – Guangzhou were coasting in second gear. Yes, their goals had perhaps been a little fortuitous and they didn’t look quite as sharp a unit as Marcelo Lippi’s team which swept to the title in 2013, but the fact of the matter is they didn’t need to be.
Although the sides were evenly matched in terms of possession (Reysol with 49% to Guangzhou’s 51%) Kashiwa were outclassed from the first minute to the last, and the difference in quality, concentration, and, most importantly, intensity, was evident from the kick-off.
The home side kept the ball well but never looked like they were going to make a breakthrough, while Luiz Felipe Scolari’s four-time defending CSL champions were far more proactive and incisive when on the attack. If, as had been the case when Reysol took the lead in the infamous 4-1 home defeat to Guangzhou in the 2013 semi-final, the visitors had really needed to score more goals they always gave the impression of being willing and able to go for them.
Then, post-match, Scolari delivered the by-now customary praise for the Japanese opposition which had just ushered his team one step closer towards the final.
“I think they are the strongest opponents I have faced in my 12 games in charge of Guangzhou,” the Brazilian said. “The Kashiwa head coach managed the team very well, they applied a lot of pressure and the team played good football.
“When I was in charge of Bunyodkor we played Pohang Steelers and at that time South Korean teams were probably the strongest in Asia,” he continued. “I feel that the progress of Japanese football has been great in these four or five years. Gamba Osaka are also in the quarter finals and I feel that the progress is great – the national team has also made it to five consecutive World Cups. My job in China is to produce results like Japan have achieved over the past 10 years.”
That’s all very nice, and the development of Japanese football has been – and continues to be – impressive. While the foundations for Guangzhou’s success have been built on cash, Chinese football as a whole is getting itself into shape to compete on a far wider scale, however, and a coach as experienced and demanding as Scolari also knows that the most important thing is who wins, and that his job is not just to help Chinese football develop but to deliver trophies.
Of late Japanese teams aren’t a threat on that front, and if J.League teams don’t learn how to add the grit and killer instinct necessary to overcome increasingly competitive opposition then they won’t be for some time yet.