Continental drift

J.League teams made another slow start in the ACL last week, and results need to improve soon… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2015/02/28/post74229/)

Football Channel,  February 28th, 2015

Here we go again. Another year, more bombastic claims about showing Japan’s true ability in Asia, and another miserable start to the Champions League for the J.League.

Every season the division announces its support of the Japanese teams in the ACL and makes certain allowances to try and assist its clubs on the road to the final, but for one reason or another these have not worked and Kashiwa Reysol’s 8-1 aggregate drubbing by Guangzhou Evergrande two years ago and Nagoya Grampus’ similarly emphatic 8-3 loss over two legs to Al-Ittihad in the 2009 semi-final is the closest a J1 team has come to winning the competition since Gamba Osaka lifted the trophy in 2008.

Japan’s status as the No.1 football nation in the continent has taken a bit of a pounding in recent seasons, and with the national team having hit a plateau and the J.League’s finest struggling in Asia’s premier club competition, the onus was on this year’s participants more than ever to show that they can still fly the flag for the region.

They didn’t exactly burst out of the traps.

Defeats for Gamba, Urawa Reds, and Kashima Antlers, and a 0-0 draw for Reysol made it another thoroughly wretched opening round of games for Japan, and while it would be foolish to get carried away after just 90 minutes, things don’t look promising.

Antlers are, for my money, the strongest Japanese representative this time around, but they were handed by far the most difficult group with Chinese powerhouse Evergrande, last year’s semi-finalists and 2013 runners-up FC Seoul, and reigning champions Western Sydney Wanderers – who beat them 3-1 in a bitterly cold Kashima on Wednesday night.

Reysol can usually be relied upon to make a fight of it in the ACL and at least made it to the semi-finals in 2013, but they may struggle this year as Tatsuma Yoshida starts the transition from Nelsinho’s sensationally trophy-laden spell with the Sun Kings.

Last year’s J1 champions Gamba and runners-up Urawa have both won the tournament before and, with negotiable groups, looked to be the best placed sides to progress this season, but neither were able to avoid defeat in their openers and will have to recover quickly if they want to be involved at the business end of the competition.

The teams line up ahead of Kashima Antlers defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers, Wednesday 25th February, 2015

Reds’ defeat, while extra disappointing because they had been ahead in Suwon, is not the end of the world, coming as it did away from home, but for Kashima and Gamba the early lapses could prove costly.

Speaking at the J.League press conference last week, Kashima coach Toninho Cerezo outlined how vital it is in international competition to make the most of playing in familiar surroundings.

“I think there’s one important thing in order to be able to fight in the ACL; that’s whether a club knows how to play at home and away,” the ever-animated Brazilian said. “Playing away in the ACL means a different environment to playing away in Japan. Of course there is a difficulty for us to play our football away in other countries. So we have to study properly and be aware of how to play at home and away. At home there is absolutely a necessity to win.”

His team wasn’t able to do that despite having the chances to do so on Wednesday, and Matthew Spiranovic detailed why that is not good enough at the highest level.

“It’s a great start [for us] away from home,” the Western Sydney defender said post-match. “You could even say a draw, just a result, would have been a positive outcome. But to get the win is fantastic.

“I think that’s football – you need to make the most of your chances because you can be punished at the other end. I thought tonight we were pretty clinical.”

That’s something that Kashima – like Gamba in Osaka the previous day – weren’t, and while you can often get away with that profligacy in domestic competition things are far more cut-throat against Asia’s best sides.

Of course, the J.League season doesn’t start until this weekend, and it is only natural, as Spiranovic conceded, that the Japanese teams won’t be fully up to speed yet.

“I think it’s definitely going to make a difference,” the former Urawa man said. “They can’t be at the peak of their powers, they can’t be match fit. But I think it can work both ways. I think a team like that can be fresh and, on the other end, at the other end of the season a team can be a little burnt out. It just depends, but I think they’ll get better the more games they play.”

Here’s hoping they do, or before we know it we’ll be hearing the ‘J.League clubs don’t care about the ACL’ excuses again.


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