Kawasaki Frontale, Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka all played brilliantly in the AFC Champions League group stage, topping their groups in dominating fashion and booking their spots to the Round of 16.
Now, they all face one-legged ties, where 90 minutes (or 120 and penalty kicks) will decide their continental fates, beginning with this week’s Round of 16.
Frontale face arguably the toughest task of the three J.League clubs remaining in the competition, both because they are the lone Japanese side that will be playing away and because they have been matched against the competition’s holders, Ulsan Hyundai FC, who are also currently the top team in the K League.
Despite their difficult draw, the defending J.League champions are built to handle a moment like this, having won everything there is to win in Japan in recent years with a deep and talented squad. While Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka have recently departed for Europe, Frontale’s star-studded lineup still includes the likes of Leandro Damião and Miki Yamane, who offer the dynamism in attack necessary to defeat Ulsan and win the entire competition.
Nagoya and Cerezo have also been matched up with Korean clubs, but both will play their Round of 16 matches at home.
Nagoya will play Daegu, who were beaten by Frontale twice in Group I play, but advanced as a second place team. The Korean club currently sit fourth in the K League, but they have a dangerous striker in Edgar, who has scored five goals in the competition. Mitchell Langerak leads an excellent Grampus defense, so they will feel like they are up to any challenge thrown at them. If the Nagoya defense can stifle Daegu, they will have one foot in the quarter-finals.
Cerezo’s opponent, Pohang Steelers, also advanced as a second-place team after Nagoya beat them at home and drew away. Pohang are fifth in the K League right now, and have struggled for goals at times. While Cerezo can say the same in an inconsistent campaign, they have frequently been at their best in continental competition this season — and will need to show it once more to advance to the quarter-finals.