The opposing attitudes of the managers of Jubilo Iwata and Gamba Osaka towards their Emperor’s Cup fifth round meeting on Wednesday were clear for all to see. J1 survival is the sole priority for 15th-placed Jubilo this season, and only defender Takayuki Chano of the eleven who started the league game against Kashiwa Reysol on Sunday retained his place amongst a second-string line-up consisting largely of youngsters and veterans. By contrast, cup matches are now the main focus for a Gamba side whose chances of finishing in the top three – let alone as champions – in the league have now vanished, and Akira Nishino is desperate to get his hands on the Emperor’s Cup title and the place in next year’s ACL that goes with it. Jubilo did manage to shock their opponents by taking the lead in the very first minute, but Gamba predictably took control soon afterwards, and ultimately secured their passage to the last eight with a comfortable 3-1 win.
From an outsider’s perspective, the format of the Emperor’s Cup is a little counterproductive. It makes sense that most of its matches are concentrated in December after the end of the league season, but due in part to clashes with the ACL and the Club World Cup, the fifth round has now joined the fourth in being brought forward to November, where it is overshadowed entirely by the various battles for titles, survival, and promotions in the league. The league match between Jubilo and Kashiwa was played out in front of 14,766 supporters, but only 2,648 people were at the same Yamaha Stadium for the cup game with Gamba just three days later.
Gamba’s fourth round match too was only able to attract 3,694 fans to Banpaku, despite it coming just days after the team’s title glory in the ACL. When one considers that switching the venue to the home of their opponents, Ventforet Kofu, would have undoubtedly raised this figure significantly, the seeding system employed in the Emperor’s Cup does seem a little unhelpful. While predetermined venues may be a necessity due to the competition’s compact schedule, J2 clubs would surely enjoy greater economic benefits and chances of progression if they weren’t always forced to take on J1 opponents away from home. The draw in the English FA Cup is entirely random, but in the Coupe de France, sides from Ligue 2 or below are guaranteed home ties whenever they are drawn against teams from the top division. While lesser sides may not actually go on to win these cups in practice, the ‘romance of the cup’ tends to be forgotten in Japan, and third-tier Honda FC’s run to the quarter-finals last year was very much an exception.
Having said that, the distractions of the league campaign have put paid to a number of big clubs’ chances in this year’s Emperor’s Cup, which at least makes it harder than ever to predict a winner. On paper, the winner of the Gamba Osaka-Nagoya Grampus tie should be the strongest team remaining thereafter, but Gamba’s participation in the Club World Cup means that this quarter-final will not be played until just a week before the final, and such a tight schedule will not be an advantage to either. Indeed, the two remaining sides from J2, Sagan Tosu and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, may even be good dark horses to actually win the trophy this year. The strange regional hosting system employed for the latter rounds has presented Sagan with an extremely rare opportunity to take on a J1 side (Yokohama F Marinos) at the Tosu Stadium, while Sanfrecce have been able to devote their energies into the Cup since securing the J2 title and a return to the top flight as early as September, and could cause Kashiwa Reysol real problems when they meet in Okayama.
With the ACL attracting greater attention in Japan, it has been suggested by some that winning just five games in the space of little over a month in the Emperor’s Cup ought not to be sufficient to gain qualification for the continental stage. However, the presence of such a carrot means that clubs should continue to take the tournament seriously, and the element of luck required in cup football has the effect of ensuring that the Champions League places are not always dominated by the same teams, as they are in England. The Emperor’s Cup boasts a proud history that dates back as far as 1921, but a format and schedule that promotes more open and intense competition will be vital for its future.