The AFC Champions League group stage is finally here. Four months after Urawa Reds claimed their third continental crown, the battle for Asian supremacy begins anew with four Meiji Yasuda J.League clubs in the fight.
Urawa’s title defense will see them begin Group J play on Wednesday away to Wuhan Three Towns. Wuhan won the 2022 Chinese Super League and currently sit third in this season’s table, led by the dynamic Romanian Nicolae Stanciu.
Fortunately, Urawa enter the match in good form, having gone four in a row unbeaten and they have the obvious confidence and experience that you’d expect from a team who just won this competition. A win in Wuhan is in the cards and would be a terrific start to their pursuit of a second consecutive Asian title.
Last season’s J1 champion, Yokohama F·Marinos, will begin their Asian campaign on Wednesday when they host Incheon United. The Korean side are playing in the Champions League for the first time ever, but are struggling in the K League, having slipped to seventh.
The key to any continental run is being an excellent home side, as Urawa demonstrated last season, so Marinos will come out in full force to defend Nissan Stadium. They’ve stumbled of late in J1 play, but are still second place and feature a phenomenal attack, led by Anderson Lopes, so they’ll be looking to ride their front line to three points.
Kawasaki Frontale have had some outstanding teams of late, but it hasn’t translated to the Champions League, where they have struggled. This J1 season hasn’t gone as planned, though, so maybe they will be able to devote full energy to continental play and make the deep run that has eluded them.
They will kick off their tournament on Tuesday when they play away to Johor Darul Ta’zim. They are the best team in Malaysia, having won the league nine years running and they are well on their way to making it 10 in a row this season.
Finally, Ventforet Kofu make their Champions League debut on Thursday. The second division side booked their place in the competition with a Emperor’s Cup run for the ages, which saw them win their first-ever major trophy. Now they head into Asian play hoping to pull another shocker.
Their opponent will be Melbourne City, taking them down to Australia for a clash with the A-League’s reigning champions. The domestic season hasn’t started yet, so Ventforet may benefit from being in mid-season form.
This week marks the first of six Champions League matchdays, with the top team in each group making their way to the knockout stages along with the best second place sides. It’s a long road to continental glory, but a win to start things off makes things much easier and these four Japanese clubs will have the support of the whole country as they go for the Asian crown.