Ready to go – Part 1: The ACL quartet
While discussing pre-season predictions at a gathering of football-loving friends in Kyoto last weekend, a topic to spark prolonged debate was the idea of ‘winning everything’ as a valid annual target. Inspired, no doubt, by the achievements of two or three truly elite European teams over the past decade or so, greed disguised as ambition – or is it the other way around? – has become increasingly fashionable across the footballing planet. The symptoms of this epidemic are occasionally quite blatant (J. League coaches like Kazushi Kimura and Levir Culpi declaring such lofty aims in preview magazines), but usually disguised more subtly in semantics. It is apparently now insufficient, for example, to describe the current Arsenal vintage as ‘still in all four competitions’; instead, they are ‘aiming for the Quadruple’.
Of course, no honest sportsman or team will ever enter any match with the intention of losing – an argument that takes us back to the rights and wrongs of Takeshi Okada’s infamous semi-final target ahead of last year’s World Cup. And if putting all one’s eggs into a single basket wasn’t so inherently risky then we would have no need for the expression. But the fact remains that multiple, and especially both domestic and continental honours have only ever been achieved in the same season by a small handful of clubs whose places in history are rightfully reserved. There is a reason for this: it’s bloody difficult. Particularly so when around half of the 18 clubs gearing up for the new J1 campaign could be considered genuine contenders, and the negative impact that success in the AFC Champions League (ACL) has had on league position for clubs like Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka has been well documented on these pages in the past.
Reigning Japanese champions Nagoya Grampus are a perfect example. Year 1 of the Dragan Stojković project ended in a third-place finish, but when the added pressures of a run to the ACL semi-finals were thrown in twelve months later, Grampus slumped to ninth. Free, by contrast, of Asian commitments last season, they won the league by a record ten points.
Stojković’s men stand out from their rivals this term for having emerged unscathed, and indeed slightly stronger, from a transfer window in which European clubs have been quick to show their appreciation for Japan’s performances at the World and Asian Cups. Grampus have done well to replace the departed Magnum with Jungo Fujimoto, while exciting young forward Kensuke Nagai joins from Fukuoka University after five goals and a gold medal with the U-23s at last year’s Asian Games. As such, the Nagoya club remain best equipped of all – perhaps comfortably so – for the challenges that await in 2011, and their priorities could thus have a significant impact on the chances of several others. The manager has insisted that back-to-back domestic titles remain his number one goal, but it would surprise no-one if Toyota wanted its club to win the Champions League – of which the automotive giant is a major sponsor.
Those who follow Gamba Osaka are still not really sure how Kansai’s top side ended up second in the league last year. Though glaringly apparent at the end of another up-and-down campaign that the aging squad was in urgent need of rejuvenation, it is equally uncertain how far the winter’s market activity will go towards achieving this objective. Adriano is a cheeky acquisition from Internacional after 19 goals on loan in the pink of cross-city rivals Cerezo last term, but must fill a void created by the departures of Lucas and Cho Jae-Jin. The midfield is boosted only by Kim Seung-Yong from Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors; the leaky defence by two university graduates, Kim Jong-Ya and Hiroki Fujiharu.
Shota Kawanishi, a teammate of Fujiharu at Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences and scorer against Gamba in last season’s Emperor’s Cup, provides another new option in attack, but the bulk of the creative responsibilities are likely to be shouldered by a starlet barely out of high school – Takashi Usami. The 18-year-old completed 90 minutes on just five occasions in 2010, but with senior club officials admitting they can only expect two more years before the new number 11 heads for Europe – likely to be less if Bayern Munich get their way – coach Akira Nishino will want to get the most from Usami while he still can. Gamba’s best bet may be to channel the experience of 30-somethings like Yasuhito Endo into recapturing the Champions League, but shock exits in the last 16 have put paid to that theory before, and Hideo Hashimoto has been sidelined for six months with a torn cruciate ligament.
The pink half of Osaka were arguably the story of the entire J. League last year, overcoming the loss of Shinji Kagawa with a combination of sensible signings and promising young talent to finish an incredible third in their first season back in the top flight. Qualification for the ACL was a real shock, and all the more surprising considering the slimness of a squad in which a core of nine outfielders each racked up over 2,000 league minutes.
However, Cerezo are therefore more at risk than most of ‘second season syndrome’. Three of last season’s most consistent performers – Akihiro Ienaga, Amaral, and the aforementioned Adriano – have all caught the eye of other suitors and left for pastures new. Replacements have been drafted in, but whether in terms of quality or quantity, the overall playing resources appear hardly strengthened from last year and one worries what effect continental adventure could have on their fortunes back home. Fans must pray for an immediate impact from young Brazilian forward Rodrigo Pimpão and South Korean international midfielder Kim Bo-Hyung (who spent 2010 on loan at Oita Trinita), and perhaps most crucially, that the Nagai club retains its apparent good fortune with injuries.
The dismal draw at lowly Montedio Yamagata on the final day that relegated Kashima Antlers from second to fourth could have been the best thing that happened all year for the outgoing, three-peat champions. Then they had to go and spoil the theory by winning the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day and taking the final ACL spot anyway. 2010 was a tumultuous year in the otherwise gloriously smooth reign of Oswaldo de Oliveira, with the mid-season losses of defenders Atsuto Uchida and Lee Jung-Soo preceding defeat at Shimizu S-Pulse that knocked Kashima off ‘their’ top spot. Eight draws in the second half of the campaign saw them fall twelve points off the Nagoya pace – five more than the combined margin by which the Antlers won their 2007, 2008, and 2009 titles.
But the end of the season brought signs of hope. Although Brazilian duo Gilton and Marquinhos – the 2008 J. League MVP and scorer of 80 goals in four years at Kashima – departed at the end of their contracts in mid-December, Kashima still went and won the Emperor’s Cup without them. Successive 2-1 wins in the latter rounds proved de Oliveira’s side still possess that wonderful (or annoying, depending on your perspective) knack of grounding out results when it matters most. 31 goals against was the meanest defensive record in J1 – despite the absence of Uchida and Lee – and in Japan internationals Daiki Iwamasa and the increasingly impressive Masahiko Inoha, Kashima arguably now have the strongest centre-back pairing in the division. 24-year-old striker Carlão is an exciting new arrival after nine goals in 14 games for União de Leiria in the Portuguese top flight earlier this European season, with Alex (JEF United Chiba) and Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse) completing a promising trio of signings. Without the ACL, they would be clear second favourites; with another early Asian exit, they still might.
Look out for a guide to the remaining contenders, those likely to struggle, and – of course – full league table predictions when this column returns next week.
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