For a nation that many consider to have the best league in Asia, it’s been far too long since Japan has had a serious contender to win the Asian Champions League but with a new coach and a new mentality Kawasaki Frontale may just be about to break that long run.
Not since Gamba Osaka lifted the title back in 2008, a year after fellow J.League side Urawa, has Japan even had a club in the final of the ACL, with many highly fancied contenders falling short year after year in the near-on decade since that last title – a period that saw the continued dominance of Korean teams before the new money of China led to Guangzhou claiming two of the last four titles.
With Shanghai SIPG all but certain to join the Saudi giants Al Hilal in the last four and the other western tie between another Saudi side in Al Ahli and Iranian giants Persepolis evenly poised much attention will be focused on Wednesday’s clash between J.League outfits in Kawasaki and Urawa.
The former is certainly not as well known as the latter who despite fairly modest success in terms of actual titles won are still considered by many observers as a ‘heavyweight’ of Asian football.
After having started the season impressively both domestically and on the continent the wheels well and truly fell off Urawa as summer arrived and so bad did things become that the club ended up parting ways with their long-serving coach Mihailo Petrovic in late July.
The surprising ascension of former staff coach Takafumi Hori has hardly led to any kind of real turnaround with the club having only won just the once in their past five outings in all competitions and the expectation is that a higher profile manager will be at the helm for the start of the next season.
Combined with that uncertainty and a raft of injuries to key players, Reds fell 3-1 at Kawasaki in the first leg clash three weeks ago in a fixture where Frontale could and perhaps should have won by an even greater margin with Hori taking the highly unusual decision to leave several of his star players, including Yuki Muto and Rafael Silva, on a bench that he didn’t even fill with the full allocation of seven players.
That result leaves Kawasaki in a very strong position to reach what would be their maiden ACL semifinal but more than just the first leg advantage it’s the evolution of the club this season that sees them emerge as a genuine chance to win each of the four competitions that they remain alive in.
Toru Oniki was a surprise appointment in many quarters to succeed the long-serving Yahiro Kazama when the former boss stepped down at the end of last season but what the appointment showed was that the club had an identity that many, if not most, others in the country don’t.
For the entire period that Kazama was in charge, Oniki was by his side as the first team coach and together the pair forged a clear identity for the club as a fast-paced, up-tempo, attacking machine.
It was a thrilling ideology that saw the side branded as the entertainers of Japanese football but one that also probably cost them titles when they were on the line due to a dogged insistence in that pass-and-move, attack-at-all-costs mentality that Kazama did little to reign in.
It’s an approach that he’s taken with him to the second tier of Japanese football where his new club, Nagoya, have also plundered goals at an historic rate but are also touch and go to earn promotion due to the all-out attacking style he’s implemented.
Meanwhile, his former assistant, has set about maintaining the core philosophy of positivity that characterised the club but crucially he’s added a form of defensive responsibility to the mix.
Oniki: A pleasant surprise.
Whilst still not the kind of club to ‘park the bus’ at most junctures, neither is there the same gung-ho mentality that was their calling card for more than half a decade of football under Kazama and it’s this evolution of their tactical approach that has seen the club through to the last eight of the ACL and to a second place spot in the league whilst also remaining alive at the pointy end of both cup competitions domestically.
Just as important as the tactical refocus has been though so too has the form of a man who surely must be firmly in the running for the AFC’s Asian Player of the Year award and that’s the ageless Kengo Nakamura.
When the club lost the J.League’s all-time leading scorer, Yoshito Okubo, to bitter rivals FC Tokyo at the end of last season many thought the wheels might fall of this machine but in retaining Nakamura in the face of attractive offers from elsewhere both at home and abroad, they kept the heartbeat of the side alive.
It’s illogical in many ways to think that the soon to be 37-year-old has actually improved as a player over the past couple of seasons but as someone who watches the team closely I can confirm that is absolutely the case.
Having shifted between roles as a number six, eight and ten under Kazama, with Oniki at the helm he’s very much planted in the attacking midfield role that allows him to really craft the club’s creative movements.
Even at an advanced age, his vision is close to unmatched anywhere in Asia, his accuracy is still exceptional and his range of passing is exquisite and it’s those qualities that he executes at a consistently high level that’s lead to much of the Kawasaki success this season.
His liberation in playing further forward has also been eased by the two outstanding ‘shields’ behind him though with 24-year-old Japanese international Ryota Oshima providing the silk and tough Brazilian Eduardo Neto the steel in Oniki’s preferred 4-2-3-1.
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Further forward, after a lengthy injury absence, off-season recruit Akihiro Ienaga has come into his own as one of the wide men with another ‘spare parts’ off-season pickup in Hiroyuki Abe and the prolific captain Yu Kobayashi rotating between the central and the other wide role in what is an electric front six.
With veteran Korean goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong having been solid and a strong collection of three central defenders from which to choose things have been sound defensively with the dynamic right-back Elsinho also finding his best form after injury derailed the start of the season.
Overall, this is an outstanding team, very well coached and who are in the midst of a brilliant run of form that’s seen them only lose just the once in their past 17 outings in all competitions to peak at exactly the right time of the season.
Although Urawa, at home, can’t be totally discounted it would still be something of a major surprise were they to overcome that first leg loss and halt the momentum of a Kawasaki machine that should have plenty right across Asia sitting up and taking notice.