When Takashi Sekizuka stunned the Kawasaki Frontale players at the end of last year by stepping down from his post as manager for the second time – ostensibly in light of the team’s narrow failure to turn promising runs in each of the four competitions in which they competed into actual silverware – one had to wonder if he’d not had one eye on the group stage draw for the 2010 AFC Champions League, held in Kuala Lumpur on 7 December.
With the 32 qualifiers split into West and East sections until the quarter-finals and teams from the same national association kept apart, each of the four Japanese representatives were guaranteed to be paired with sides from both China and South Korea, with the tightness of the group then hinging on the identity of its final member – a 50:50 chance of either a dangerous meeting with Australian opposition, or the somewhat easier proposition of a minnow from Southeast Asia. A-League champions Melbourne Victory certainly represented the shortest possible straw as far as Kawasaki were concerned, but as if that wasn’t enough, the addition of Chinese Super League winners Beijing Guoan and K-League runners-up Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma as well looks to have made their Group E a real group of death. If Sekizuka decided he didn’t fancy it, you couldn’t really blame him.
As it is, tomorrow’s visit to Seongnam represents Frontale’s first competitive fixture under the permanent charge of former head coach Tsutomu Takahata, who stepped in temporarily during a period of ill health for his predecessor in 2008. The new man at the helm is able to call upon national team midfielder Junichi Inamoto, who returns to the J. League this season following almost nine years in Europe, and will look to get his quest to finally secure Kawasaki’s first ever trophy on track with victory against the most decorated side in Korean history.
Inamoto’s old club, meanwhile, look to have things a little easier. Gamba Osaka embark on what appears set to be their biggest challenge of the group stage on Wednesday with a trip to Suwon Samsung Bluewings, but Cha Bum-Kun’s side are a shadow of the 2008 double winners who went on to thrash Kashima Antlers 4-1 in their opening continental fixture twelve months ago. Suwon finished down in tenth position in the 15-team K-League last season, and only scraped back into the ACL thanks to a penalty shootout victory over Seongnam in the final of the Korean FA Cup last November. Gamba coach Akira Nishino has striking problems, with Cho Jae-Jin suffering a broken bone in his right hand and new signing Zé Carlos told to stay behind and lose weight, but one feels that even if the Osaka club were to slip up this week, they should have few difficulties qualifying from a group that also contains Henan Construction (who finished a surprising third in the Chinese Super League) and Singapore Armed Forces FC (who conceded 19 goals in six group matches last year).
Indeed, the toughest hurdle that awaits the 2008 Asian champions could once again come immediately after the group stage. Should Gamba, as expected, make it through in either first or second, they will face a side from Group E in what for a second year will be a one-off, do-or-die eliminator in the last 16 – throwing up the prospect of a rematch against Kawasaki.
The latter’s 3-2 victory at Banpaku at the same stage last year came about after they had surrendered top spot in their group with a surprise 2-0 loss at home to Pohang Steelers on matchday six – both sides had already been guaranteed qualification – and it remains a source of frustration to some Japanese observers that the Koreans were then able to go all the way and clinch the title without facing another J. League opponent (Nagoya Grampus – the weakest J. League representative on paper – then beat Kawasaki in the last eight, before their tame elimination at the hands of Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad in the semi-finals put paid to any hopes of a Japanese three-peat). It will be interesting to see how ACL newcomers Sanfrecce Hiroshima fare in their encounter with the defending Asian champions in Group H, which also contains 2008 runners-up Adelaide United (who qualified as 2008-09 A-League runners-up but finished bottom in the recently completed 2009-10 regular season) and Shandong Luneng (who scraped into fourth place in the Chinese Super League on head-to-head record).
This season, country protection in the quarter-finals should hopefully prevent a repeat of last year’s succession of all-Japanese knockout ties, but the new rule will not apply in the event that three or more teams from the same association are still standing at this point. Whether the J. League is able to achieve such domination as in 2008 will likely depend on the ability of three-times defending domestic champions Kashima Antlers to overcome their demons on the continental stage. Oswaldo de Oliveira and his players have spoken in pre-season about a desire bordering on obsession to fill the ACL-shaped hole in their club’s trophy cabinet at the fourth attempt. However, while Kashima usually have no problems making it out of their group – this year’s draw with Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Chinese runners-up Changchun Yatai, and Indonesian side Persipura Jayapura looks manageable enough – they are still yet to win a single knockout tie in the competition’s history.