Japanese clubs eager to regain Asian bragging rights
Domestic champions Sanfrecce the country's best hope despite last year's poor record
Pressure is mounting on Japanese clubs to emulate the regional dominance of their national side as the Asian Champions League kicks off today, 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 South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has four representatives in the 32-team tournament that is divided into west and eastern zones until the quarter-final stage for geographical reasons.
J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima are the leading contenders, despite having crashed out in last year's group stage without a single victory.
"Last year, we were not technically or tactically inferior, but overpowered 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 boast veteran Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, who signed in February in a deal reportedly worth US$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 their quest to become the first team since 2005 to defend the title.
South Korean teams have contested the past five finals and boast 10 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 are 2013 runners-up FC Seoul. The club have seen two of their biggest stars, Dejan Damjanovic and Ha Dae-sung, leave for Chinese clubs in deals worth a combined total of almost US$10 million.
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 make a debut in just their second season of existence.
In the western half of the draw, 2011 champions Al Sadd of Qatar return to the tournament for the first time since that victory.