SEOUL (AP) — Pressure is mounting on Japanese clubs to emulate the regional dominance of their national side as the Asian Champions League kicks off this Tuesday, 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 Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, has four representatives in the 32 team tournament that is divided into west and eastern zones until the quarterfinal stage for geographical reasons.
J-League champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima is the leading contender, despite having crashed out in last year's group stage without a single victory.
"Last year we were not technically or tactically inferior but over powered 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 boasts veteran Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, who signed in February in a deal reportedly worth $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 its quest to become the first team since 2005 to defend the title.
"I know that Guangzhou is the champion, but it will not be easy to win the title again," Diamanti said.
South Korea teams have contested the past five finals and boast ten 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.