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How will the Japanese clubs fair in the Asian Champions League?

Thursday 16th February 2017
The J.League are one of the most represented associations in the Asian Champions League with a team in every western region group. Although a Japanese side hasn't won the continental title in nine years since Gamba Osaka won it back in 2008, will the J.Leagues finest progress in this seasons competition?

The Asian Champions League follows the same structure as the UEFA version, with one exception. The teams are separated by geographical values – meaning that Western Asian clubs will not meet Eastern Asian clubs, clubs from both regions do not actually meet until the final match of the competition. Meaning that Japanese clubs will only meet teams from the same region; which this year includes teams from South Korea, China, Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand.

The Japanese champions, Kashima Antlers, have been gifted one of the most desirable allocations in the Western groups. They'll be lining up against Muangthong United, Brisbane Roar and Ulsan Hyundai. The Thai opposition may be the champions of their division, but the quality of Thailand's football is notably weaker than the opposition in this competition. The only Thai team to enjoy major success in this competition was “Thai Farmers Bank” when they won the title back in 1994 and 1995; however, the club no longer exist.

Ulsan Hyundai from South Korea; finished fourth in the K-League Classic, and only qualified by virtue of Jeonbuk being disqualified. The Tigers did win the whole competition back in 2012, but recently in their own league have been finishing well off the championship mark.

Hailing from Queensland, Australia – Brisbane Roar is likely to be the sternest test for Kashima Antlers. The Roar will be playing in their third continental campaign; as a result of their shock playoff win against Shanghai Shenhua. Despite having to qualify via those means, the Roar are third in the A-League and one of the few teams to get anything out of a resolute Sydney FC this season; having drawn with them twice this season.

The Japanese champions should qualify through this group with little bother, with the only snag being the ties with Brisbane – maybe the away tie with Ulsan Hyundai. The Antlers should, however, expect to beat the Thai outfit both home and away.

Second-placed, Urawa Red Diamonds most certainly have the trickiest of group line-ups. They'll have to play against the South Korean champions in FC Seoul, the star-studded Shanghai SIPG and the slightly less ominous Western Sydney Wanderers.

The sides have met three times prior, and the games have really entertaining. The first meeting was under a year ago in the round of sixteen in this very competition. Urawa enjoyed a 1-0 home win, but the second game resulted in a 3-3 aggregate scoreline. As away goals are not recognised in the competition, the tie went to extra time and eventually penalties in the South Korean capital. In the end, Seoul emerged as winners and advanced to the next round. The great tie created a footballing friendship shared between the two sides, and they played a friendly game very recently (which ended 1-1)  as part of each team's pre-season training. This could be the marquee meeting of the whole western region and will prove the hardest game for any of the Japanese sides.
Footage from the competitive game the sides played against each other in Japan.

Shanghai SIPG boasts two of the biggest exports to the Chinese Super League, both Oscar and Hulk now line up for the Red Eagles of Chinese football. The club was only founded in 2005; so the clubs continental history is particularly short – yet rather successful for a club that's only twelve years old. They navigated the group stage with relative ease; before seeing FC Tokyo in the round of sixteen – making the quarter-finals in their first appearance in the competition. This again will be another challenge for Urawa.

Western Sydney Wanders have somewhat fallen away from the prior successes they enjoyed just a few years ago. They famously won the whole competition in 2014 (despite only being founded two years prior); and played in the A-League Grand Final in 2013, 2014 and 2016. The club boasts a serious glut of ambition for an outfit which is less than five years old. The contemporary Wanderers, however, are struggling to maintain their success, and are in seventh place – out of contention of the final series. Urawa shouldn't have much issue dispensing with this deflated A-League side.

Urawa is definitely in a crowded group full of talent, which they will have to fight to qualify for. They'd be best utilising their home advantage; trying to maximise their points there and potentially not getting too adventurous in Seoul.

Group G sees Kawasaki Frontale take on a very mixed bag of other teams. Frontale originally were a splinter cell of Brazilian side Grêmio; however, the two clubs still enjoy a very productive relationship. This explains the large South American influence on the club. Last year the team finished second in the overall league table and scored the most amount of goals throughout the whole league season – making real strides for the club's development to a title-chasing team.

Their hardest opposition will be the mammoths of Asian football, Guangzhou Evergrande. They've won the Chinese Super League for the last six successive years – without much competition. They've also won the Champions League two times in the last four years. The club's glorious run in both domestic and international competitions has them ranked as the best West-Asian football side., thusly making them a hard prospect for Frontale.

Another team in Group G are the Hong Kong Premier League champions: Eastern Sports Club. This is the first time that Hong Kong has been represented in the AFC Champions League. Eastern are definite minnows in this competition, having very limited continental experience prior to this campaign. The other team in the group are Suwon Samsung Bluewings, which qualified by winning the Korean FA Cup, although only finished seventh in the K-League.
Kawasaki Frontale notably had one of the best followings last year, expect them to be even louder on those continental nights.

Whilst the Chinese Super League opposition will provide a real challenge for Kawasaki, the other two sides should offer a lot less competition. Frontale should progress as runners-up from this group.

Gamba Osaka narrowly qualified for the Champions League, by virtue of the Emperor's Cup spot being reallocated as both teams had already qualified. The spot was passed down until Gamba in fourth place were awarded it, but they did have to beat the Malaysian champions to get to the group here.

They come up against an Adelaide United side which has really been through the mill of late. They won the title last season, and much like Leicester City – fallen apart. They are now bottom of the A-League table and seemingly have no chance of qualifying for the Grand Final series.

They also will be playing Jeju United from South Korea and Jiangsu Suning from China. Neither of which have started their seasons yet, but both finished within their respective leagues top three.

Given that Gamba truly replaced Usami, who was a pivotal player for them last year  - this may be harder than it looks. Whilst the Australian team might not offer much, the others will certainly do so – this group could go down to the wire.

When analysing all the groups; on paper, it looks like we could have at least two Japanese sides advancing. Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale both have very good chances of doing so, whether as the other two are in very competitive groups which could prove difficult for them to stand out in and advance from.
Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 


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