The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Japan aims to break Asian Champions League drought and reassert itself as a club power
Pressure is mounting on Japanese clubs to emulate the regional dominance of their national side as the Asian Champions League kicks off this Tuesday, with J-League sides looking to break a five-year drought in the continental competition.
The J-League has fallen behind its South Korean and Chinese domestic counterparts in recent years, with Gamba Osaka's 2008 title followed by three South Korean wins and the victory by a Marcello Lippi-led Guangzhou Evergrande of China last season.
Japan, along with Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has four representatives in the 32 team tournament that is divided into west and eastern zones until the quarterfinal stage for geographical reasons.
J-League champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima is the leading contender, despite having crashed out in last year's group stage without a single victory.
"Last year we were not technically or tactically inferior but over powered by our opponents' physical strength," said Sanfrecce coach Hajime Moriyasu, who led the club to a second successive J.League title in 2013.
"We need to win our home games. The teams that compete in the AFC Champions League use different tactics when playing home or away. We have to get those vital three points in our own stadium."
Cerezo Osaka boasts veteran Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, who signed in February in a deal reportedly worth $5.6 million. The 2010 World Cup Most Valuable Player will link up with highly-rated Japanese international Yoichiro Kakitani.
Forlan is not the only big name import looking to make his mark in the Champions League, with Italian international Alessandro Diamanti joining Guangzhou in its quest to become the first team since 2005 to defend the title.
"I know that Guangzhou is the champion, but it will not be easy to win the title again," Diamanti said.
South Korea teams have contested the past five finals and boast ten continental titles in total. With talent being lost to the increasingly lucrative Chinese Super League, a continuation of such success will be challenging, despite three of its four representatives — Jeonbuk Motors, Ulsan Horangi and Pohang Steelers — all having lifted the trophy in the past decade.
The other Korean representative is 2013 runner up FC Seoul. The club has seen two of its biggest stars, Dejan Damjanovic and Ha Dae-sung, leave for Chinese clubs in deals worth a combined total of almost $10 million.
"Ha and Dejan are big losses for the team," midfielder Yun Il-rok said. "But . Seoul are still strong as a team and it does not matter so much about the specific players," said Yun.
Three Australian teams are contesting the Champions League for the first time this year, with Central Coast and Melbourne Victory aiming to improve on poor past performances, while Western Sydney Wanderers makes a debut in just its second season of existence.
In the western half of the draw, 2011 champion Al Sadd of Qatar returns to the tournament for the first time since. That win over Jeonbuk Motors in a penalty shootout is the only win for the western part of the confederation since 2005.
Iran has yet to record a title triumph in the current version of the tournament, which was launched in 2003. Foolad Khouzestan is in the competition for the first time and has high ambitions.
"There are lots of advantages to being a new team in the AFC Champions League," said midfielder Shahab Karami. "Nobody really knows what we are capable of, so we have a great opportunity to surprise a lot of teams."
The 2003-winner Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates has struggled to make a mark in recent years. Boasting stars such as Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman, who has recently been linked to English giants Arsenal and Manchester City, the team is targeting a return to the top of Asian football.
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