Chasing Supremacy

In Europe, club and international football do not always overlap. But in other zones of the world – where football isn’t in the same development trajectory –, they do. And the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022 proved it (kinda). Qatar will be there as the hosts; Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran, and Japan have qualified. Australia and UAE will play in the playoffs, while China is nowhere to be seen.

There’s no doubt the AFC Champions League has taken a toll due to COVID. No more full stadiums, centralized venues, larger competition (who though hasn’t brought the hoped effects). Yes, Asian football is more and more followed around the world, but the clubs are not at the same level of the national teams. On that matter, Asian football has taken the shape of South American football instead of the European one.

Meanwhile, a new Super League looms in distance, with the possibility of reducing the entries from all countries. While the author of this piece is against it (football isn’t developed in Asia as in Europe, so that would cut a huge chunk of chances for other countries), the AFC Champions League is ready to start for the 2022 edition. The last one with the February-December format (although this edition will end in February 2023, due to the World Cup in November-December).

Japan has maintained its four spots, although Vissel Kobe seriously risked ruining it all in the playoffs (and J. League teams haven’t shined in that stage: in five playoffs between 2017 and 2022, Kashima got eliminated once, Vissel needed extra time this year and Sanfrecce Hiroshima got to PKs in 2018). It’s now time to overcome China in the AFC Club Rankings, but mostly bring back the trophy after four years.

To help present the competition, we divided the four teams into two different batches: who might struggle and who could thrive. And keep in mind that we did that division because a second place isn’t worth an automatic ticket to the knock-out stage (Gamba Osaka learned it the hard way in 2021). So, let’s go!

The Strugglers

First up, Yokohama F. Marinos. The machine left by Ange Postecoglou in Summer 2021 is still struggling to find the right balance. There are days when Marinos are able to defeat Kawasaki Frontale by scoring four goals and others when they lose on a rainy afternoon in Hiroshima. The depth of the roster isn’t up for discussion and there are a lot of promising players in the squad, but Kevin Muscat is lacking the final step to putting it all together.

Furthermore, Group H features some challenges. Marinos will square off against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, one of the best teams when it comes down to ACL. Yokohama are the only J. League club not featuring a Chinese club in their group, which – who would have thought two years ago? – is a letdown.

Finally, their record in the AFC Champions League is terrible and they’ve not particularly shone even under Postecoglou (the best result in history is the 2020 run, which ended in the Round of 16 against Suwon Samsung Bluewings).

What about Kawasaki Frontale, instead? After their dynasty has clearly swept out everything left in Japan, the AFC Champions League trophy is the only thing missing. In 2021, PKs were the difference against Ulsan Hyundai, and they probably lost a massive chance. But it’s not like Frontale are coming to this group stage in a better shape than last season… actually, it’s the opposite.

Despite winning the continental silverware would complete the beatification process of Toru Oniki in front of Todoroki, Kawasaki’s roster is all but deep. They have problems with center-backs and injuries. The group stage might not take all these energies, but Group I in 2022 is worse than last year’s: facing Daegu FC, a U-23 Beijing Guoan, and United City is not like squaring off against Ulsan Hyundai, Johor Dazul Ta’zim, and a weakened Guangzhou FC.

Their main aim is to be relevant in the Asian spotlight, but they have not reinforced the squad that much. Chanathip is a marvelous player, but that’s not the main need they had. If they come second, then they’re up for a wild ride in figuring out if they can make it out of Group I.

The Potential

Who would have thought to pick Urawa Red Diamonds as the best-equipped team to make it? Honestly, from the start, we would have done that. Sure, Reds are not finding the best run in the league, and many who picked them for a J. League title run are disappointed. But the cup isn’t about the same rules from the local league, and Urawa have already shown they have some feats to make it under Ricardo Rodríguez.

They have depth in the roster (even too much, we’d say). They have a cup-related mentality, which has brought them to the semifinals of J. League Cup, to winning the Emperor’s Cup, and surprising Frontale in the 2022 Japanese Super Cup. The Spanish manager isn’t cut for league runs; he goes way longer in the cups. Group F – featuring Shandong Taishan, Lion City Sailors, and Daegu FC – is doable.

And Urawa are historically a team that does well in the AFC Champions League, even when the situation is terrible in the league. Do you remember how the current Tokyo Verdy head coach, Takafumi Hori, was picked as AFC Manager of the Year in 2017 only because he put together enough in three months to win the AFC Champions League that year?

Sure, you could have some doubts saying the same about Vissel Kobe. They seemed to have found a balance under Atsuhiro Miura – by reaching their best result even in 2021 – and they fired him after seven games without a win. Usual masterpiece by the board, but the coming of Miguel Ángel Lotina makes sense to find a structure and fix the season (although Vissel will lose the flair they showed under Miura).

It’s a bet because Lotina as well comes from a dreadful experience at S-Pulse, where he was supposed to turn things around for the club and instead was sacked before the 2021 season brought Shimizu to relegation. Nevertheless, if he’s able to do what he did at Cerezo, Vissel will be presentable and their Group J doesn’t feature massive challenges: Shanghai Port, Chiangrai United, and Kitchee are surely manageable, even for this version of Kobe.

The Rivals

How is the situation with other countries, though? Let’s start with China, who has the most dramatic situation. The Chinese Super League is basically nowhere, with the championship starting only on April 29th. The combined impact coming from the string of bankruptcies and the COVID situation determined the disaster with Changchun Yatai. They had their best season ever, but couldn’t play the playoffs round and let Sydney FC go through

Australia is a better place right now. Two teams made it to the Group Stage and one of them, debutants Melbourne City FC (coming from the City Football Group’s galaxy) has a decent chance of making it to the Round of 16. Nevertheless, it’s not enough to revive the A-League as needed. 2023-24 could see them and Thailand improving their number of teams accessing the group stage, but they must wait for China’s collapse.

Meanwhile, South Korea remains the strongest contender for East supremacy. The K-League is still a 12 teams-championship, but the squads coming from there keep piling up results. Besides 2019, Ulsan Hyundai won in 2020, Pohang Steelers reached the final in 2021 and Suwon came all the way to the semifinals in 2018, only to lose in a grotesque way against Kashima Antlers. They’ll be again favorites to reach the final.

But the real problem for Japan is that the balance has changed between East and West. For most of the 2010s, it was clear that the West couldn’t win the trophy (and even when they could, like with Al-Ain in 2016 or Al-Hilal in 2014 & 2017, they have not). But right now, the balance has changed: Al-Hilal won in 2019 and 2021, Saudi Arabian teams are doing well, and Qatari clubs are still hoping to match the feat of 2011, when Al-Sadd won it all.

After winning once in 13 years (between 2006 and 2018), the West is way stronger than before. And the switch of the calendar will only make it more evident in the next seasons, whether we’ll have an Asian Super League or not.

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