Sanfrecce fans last May.
Story and photos by Stephen Packer
The new football season in Japan is just around the corner, and Sanfrecce have already set their sights on the crown of Asian football.
The Asian Champions League is the pinnacle of club football in this region, with 32 teams competing from 10 leagues, from Saudi Arabia to Australia. The winner will represent Asia at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup, held in the United Arab Emirates in December.
SATO Hisato takes the high road against S-Pulse’s AOYAMA Naoaki.
Sanfrecce will open their ACL campaign on Wednesday at the Big Arch, against Shandong Luneng Taishan of the Chinese Super League. The players must know that a home win is critical if they are to live up to the high expectations that have already been set. Hiroshima have both the home advantage and the psychological advantage however, as Shandong were beaten home and away by fellow Japanese side Gamba Osaka in last year’s ACL.
Pohang Steelers of the Korean K-League represent a much sterner proposition, as Pohang are the reigning ACL champions. They also finished third in last year’s Club World Cup, behind Spanish powerhouse Barcelona and Argentina’s Estudiantes. Pohang have undergone a change of management since then however, as Brazilian manager Sérgio Farias was lured away by Al-Ahli of the Saudi Premier League. Important players have also moved on, including Club World Cup all-time leading scorer Denilson, who has been brought to Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor by fellow Brazilian and 2002 FIFA World Cup winning manager “Big” Phil Scolari. Sanfrecce should therefore fancy their chances against the weakened Koreans, although they still should not be underestimated.
Rounding out Sanfrecce’s opponents in Group H are Australia’s Adelaide United. Adelaide are making their third appearance at the ACL, a record for Australian teams. They were runners up to champions Gamba Osaka in the 2008 ACL, but since then seem to have fallen apart. They finished bottom in the 2009-10 A-League, which finished on Feb. 12. However, Adelaide had already qualified for the ACL by virtue of their performance in the 2008-09 A-League season. On the face of it, Sanfrecce should be disappointed if they do not collect six points from Adelaide, and you can be sure that Shandong and Pohang will be aiming for the same thing.
The prospects for Sanfrecce’s progressing to the knockout stages of the ACL are therefore good to very good, but it remains to be seen if Sanfrecce have what it takes to carry them to the Final and beyond. If Sanfrecce do make it, they can be sure of strong support, as the final is again being held in Tokyo.
Sanfrecce’s Croatian winger Mihael MIKIĆ, and S-Pulse’s FUJIMOTO Jungo.
The J. League
As well as the mantle of Champions of Asia, the Purple Archers have also targeted another top-four finish in the J. League. It has historically been very difficult for Asian teams to excel both domestically and in continental competition, to the extent that any team announcing a bid for a double would not be taken seriously. It remains to be seen if Sanfrecce’s young side can even manage to stay above halfway in the J. League if they do go the distance in the ACL, but as we saw last season, this is a team that is more than capable of unleashing a few surprises.
Sanfrecce’s J. League season will kick off in Hiroshima, against Shimizu S-Pulse. The J. League has a reputation for deliberately arranging the opening and closing fixtures to maximise interest, as well as scheduling important games on national holidays. The upshot of this is that champions Kashima Antlers will be renewing their rivalry with Urawa Red Diamonds in the first round, and Sanfrecce will play J1 mainstays Shimizu S-Pulse.
Both teams have a reputation for cultivating local talent, and Shizuoka is regarded as a heartland of Japanese soccer. The proof of this is in the return to his home prefecture of former national team star midfielder ONO Shinji, whose career has seen him play for top Dutch side Feyenood as well as Germany’s Bochum. Ono has been dogged by injury recently however, and it remains to be seen as to how much influence he will have on the match in Hiroshima.
In all honesty, I was very pleased when this was announced as the first game; S-Pulse have competed in the top-flight of Japanese football since the formation of the J. League in 1993, and have made eight finals appearances (only Kashima Antlers have made it to more finals). It is quite a compliment to Sanfrecce to be ranked alongside S-Pulse, and indeed last year saw the two teams play out two hard-fought 1-1 draws. Expect more interesting football from these two this year, in what could be a dark-horse contender for fixture of the round.
As well as the game against S-Pulse, and four games in the ACL, Sanfrecce will play two away games in the J. League before the end of March.
Sanfrecce will travel to Kansai on White Day, to face perennial mid-table side Vissel Kobe. Vissel have never finished above tenth in J1, but their home stadium is well worth a visit (Home’s Stadium hosted three matches at the 2002 FIFA World Cup), even if the football played there isn’t the best. Vissel caused Sanfrecce a few problems last season however, forcing them to come from behind to win a seven-goal thriller in Hiroshima 4-3, and the two sides ground out a dull 0-0 draw in the return fixture. I will probably be in Kansai that weekend, but elsewhere: the Osaka derby between Cerezo and Gamba will be held on the same day.
On the 20th, Sanfrecce will face Shonan Bellmare, who scraped into the third place in J2 required for promotion to the top flight, and are this year’s favourites for relegation. Japanese magazine Soccer Digest’s preseason report (summarised here on the tireless Go! Go! Omiya Ardija blog) ranks Shonan as having the worst squad in J1, and as such Sanfrecce must be looking to return from Kanagawa with all three points.
Incidentally, the same Soccer Digest report ranks Sanfrecce as having the fifth-strongest squad in the J. League. Based on that assessment, another top-four finish is definitely possible, as is the chance of Asian silverware. The new season awaits, and as they say at the Big Arch: We Fight Together!
2/24, Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Shandong Luneng Taishan (ACL)
3/6, Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Shimizu S-Pulse (J1)
3/10, Pohang Steelers vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (ACL)
3/14, Vissel Kobe vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (J1)
3/20, Shonan Bellmare vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (J1)
3/24, Adelaide United vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (ACL)
3/30, Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Adelaide United (ACL)