The AFC Champions League knockout stages are finally here in Saitama, with three Meiji Yasuda J1 League teams remaining in search of continental glory.
Yokohama F·Marinos and Vissel Kobe topped their groups in April, while Urawa Reds went through as a second-place team, but all three enter the Round of 16 knowing just four results separate them from the top prize in Asian football.
Japan is guaranteed at least one team in the quarter-finals because Marinos and Vissel will lock horns in this round in an all-J.League tie.
If league play is any indication, the Tricolor should enter that matchup as big favorites. They currently top the J1 table, were victorious over the Ushi earlier this year, and recently saw star striker Léo Ceará scoop Konami Monthly MVP.
While Vissel find themselves on the other end of the J1 table, their recent league performances show signs of a turnaround and a potential stiff challenge for their opponents from Yokohama. Coming off a convincing 2-0 win over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo last weekend, Kobe are hoping to raise their game for this competition, much like they did in 2020 when they reached the semi-finals and fell in extra-time to eventual champions Ulsan Hyundai.
While Marinos and Vissel are busy with their intra-J.League battle, Urawa will be busy with Johor Darul Ta’zim. The Malaysian side present a big challenge, having finished ahead of Kawasaki Frontale in the group stage to prove their quality.
The Reds know they will have to be good to get past JDT; luckily for them, they enter in their best form of the season. Urawa have won four of their last five in J1 and have lost just one of their last 10 across all competitions.
David Moberg has established himself as one of Japan’s most dangerous attackers and Kasper Junker is back at full fitness. With that duo leading the line, the Reds defense simply has to hold steady and they’ve done that as of late, allowing more than one goal on only one occasion in their last 14 contests in all competitions. Put simply, Ricardo Rodriguez’s team is exceptionally hard to beat, which could be the name of the game in a knockout competition.
Perhaps most importantly, all remaining AFC Champions League East Region fixtures will be hosted in Saitama, giving Urawa the massive advantage of playing in front of their home fans and in familiar environs. While the Reds will be playing quite literally at home, Marinos and Vissel will also surely draw some comfort from staying on Japanese soil, within close proximity of their supporters.
The Round of 16 matches will be played on August 18 and 19, with the winners moving onto the August 22 quarter-finals. The run to AFC Champions League glory is back on, and the J.League is squarely in the middle of it, with our teams and fans ready for action.