Japan’s future in the 2016 AFC Champions League got 75 percent clearer this week, and the outlook is only somewhat encouraging.
Three of the four Meiji Yasuda J1 League sides in the continent’s top club competition have learned their fate, with Urawa Reds advancing to the last 16 and both Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima being eliminated. The fourth, FC Tokyo, still have their fate in their hands going into the final match day.
Tokyo’s domestic struggles carried over into continental play on Wednesday as they lost 3-0 to two-time defending K-League Classic champions Jeonbuk Motors at Ajinomoto Stadium. Manager Hiroshi Jofuku continued his policy of rotating players for Champions League matches, and that lack of continuity showed in a disjointed and surprisingly flat performance from a side who could have secured a knockout round berth with a win over Jeonbuk.
Instead, it was the Korean side who secured a tidy victory. After two early balls over the top exposed some worrying gaps in the Tokyo defense, Leonardo and Ricardo Lopes exploited those gaps with some slick passing before setting up Kim Bo-kyung to score the opener after 35 minutes. Lee then turned provider on the hour mark, taking advantage of an unforced error from halftime substitute Takuma Abe and curling in a cross for Lee Jae-sung to head in Jeonbuk’s second.
The visitors heaped further misery on Tokyo in second-half stoppage time. Goalkeeper Kwon Sun-tae launched a free kick from midway inside his own half toward substitute Kim Shin-wook. While the ball somehow went over the 197-centimeter striker, Han Kyo-won was on hand to gather the loose ball and cross for Go Moo-yul to tap into an empty net. When the final whistle blew moments later, boos rained down from the Tokyo supporters’ end as the team suffered their third straight loss in all competitions.
Even so, there is still hope for Tokyo in the Champions League. A victory away to already-eliminated Becamex Binh Duong on May 4 will guarantee them second place in Group E and a place in the last 16. Even a draw would be enough to advance provided Jeonbuk beat Jiangsu Suning in Jeonju the same day – Tokyo and Jiangsu would finish level on points, with the Japanese side holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Jiangsu beat Binh Duong 3-0 on Wednesday to move into second place on eight points, one ahead of Tokyo and one behind Jeonbuk.
Could Urawa Reds be the only Japanese side in the knock-out stage?
Elsewhere on Wednesday, Urawa made sure of advancing out of Group H after earning a 0-0 draw at Sydney FC. The point was enough to guarantee Urawa of at least second place by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker over Guangzhou Evergrande, with the reigning Asian champions and five-time defending Chinese Super League winners eliminated despite their 2-0 win at Pohang Steelers. Urawa can claim first place in the group if they beat Pohang at home on May 3 and Sydney fail to win in Guangzhou.
The news was less positive for Japan’s other two representatives. Hiroshima were eliminated from Group F after losing 1-0 at Shandong Luneng on Wednesday, with Diego Tardelli scoring the only goal. Playing without starters such as Mihael Mikic and top scorer Peter Utaka proved too difficult to overcome for the J1 champions, who host FC Seoul on May 4 to close out group play. On Tuesday, two goals from Santos Junior lifted Suwon Bluewings to a 2-1 win at Gamba Osaka. Yasuyuki Konno scored for the hosts, while Takashi Usami missed a penalty kick. Gamba, guaranteed to finish last in the group, travel to Melbourne Victory on May 3.