“Japanese teams just don’t really care about the ACL”. Nonsense…
“The J.League is the EPL of Asian football,” Central Coast Mariners manager Graham Arnold declared after his side were defeated by Kashiwa Reysol in the ACL last month.
While that may certainly be true in terms of organization, sponsorship and technical level, J.League clubs have hardly been driving home their supposed superiority in continental competition.
Reigning champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima have, just as in 2010, stunk out their group, earning just one point in four games, losing their first three, while last year’s runners-up Vegalta Sendai have equally struggled to assert themselves in their maiden campaign.
Urawa Reds, too, made a much-feted return to the competition this year but don’t look a patch on the 2007 vintage which sealed Japan’s first ever triumph in the competition, and were schooled in Guangzhou and surrendered the lead in both games against Jeonbuk to take just one point from the pair of matches.
The only positive for the Japanese game has been the dominant form of Kashiwa Reysol, who have surged into top spot in Group H, all but ensuring their progression to the next stage.
The excuses for this underwhelming set of circumstances are oft-trotted out and, to be honest, not especially convincing.
Travel, tough schedules, and a not-taking-it-seriously approach are all used to explain the struggles of J.League sides; none of which stand up to stronger scrutiny.
Playing twice a week, in domestic and Asian competition, is undoubtedly not easy but is hardly unique to the Japanese participants. The J.League, too, has done all it realistically can to help its participants out by arranging their schedules as kindly as possible after the more gruelling away trips.
Their opponents are also required to clock up the air-miles, while problems aren’t just encountered on the road, with Sanfrecce, for instance, losing both of their home games.
This is where the “not bothered about the ACL” excuses start to crop up. Squad rotation and the muted atmosphere in the stadiums would appear to back up the claim that players and fans aren’t especially fussed with the competition, but the suggestion that there is a “let’s just get it over with” mentality is a little hard to swallow.
I have a feeling that instead of a lack of motivation the problems may be mental, and rooted in the comfort of the domestic game.
Part of what makes the J.League the ‘Premier League of Asia’ is its cosy, safe, and somewhat synthetic style. Players from rival clubs all seem to get on well, there is rarely, if ever, any real needle in games, and the atmosphere barely varies from venue to venue.
Now consider the desire of foreign teams to beat their Japanese counterparts. Remember the way Cerezo Osaka so meekly collapsed after allegedly being pelted with staples in the away leg of their quarter final against Jeonbuk in 2011? It is not especially surprising that Sanfrecce – one of the ‘nicest’ clubs you could encounter, complete with their good guy talisman Hisato Sato and cute goal celebrations – struggle to cope with the rough and tumble of streetwise and highly motivated opponents.
Vegalta, too, are inexperienced and perhaps a little naive, and while Urawa should be made of sterner stuff half a decade of underachievement has left them brittle; it sometimes seems that fear of letting down their support may have overtaken the fierce desire to repay it with success.
Which leaves Reysol, the club with the only intimidating stadium in Japan and a squad riding high on success after successive triumphs in J2, J1 and the Emperor’s Cup.
There is a sense that the ACL trophy is the only thing missing for this group of players and instead of fearing failure they are single-mindedly focused on this next target. The savvy of their foreign players adds to this, primarily the sublimely talented – in the dark arts of gamesmanship as well as the more camera-friendly aspects of his play – Leandro Domingues, and you get the sense that Jorge Wagner and Cleo – who has previous experience in the continental competition – are determined to prove themselves outside of Japan.
That gusto appears to have rubbed off on their teammates, but sadly not the other J1 participants.