Japanese clubs go into the AFC Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday confident of keeping the trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun, although Brazilian legend Rivaldo has other ideas.
Urawa Reds became the first Japanese team to win Asia's premier club competition when they defeated Sepahan of Iran last year, and they face a tough first leg tie in the searing heat of Kuwait against Al Qadsia. Gamba Osaka travel to Syria for a showdown with Al Karama, while Kashima Antlers enjoy home advantage over Adelaide United.
The 36-year-old former FIFA World Player of the Year won two La Liga trophies with Barca, and now wants to add an AFC Champions League medal to his collection. "I want to help my new team in the Champions League. The club made a serious offer, and now ," he said.
Rivaldo scored 36 goals in 86 matches for Brazil, and hit 90 goals in 160 outings for Barcelona. Kuruvchi general director Tavakkal Kadirovich believes the veteran still has plenty of offer. "God will give it to us this year," Kadirovich said of the AFC Champions League title.
Three out of eight
The coaches of Urawa, Gamba and Kashima are equally confident. "It is wonderful for Japanese football that three teams will compete in the knock-out round," said Urawa's German coach Gert Engels. "A possibility that a Japanese club will win the tournament is high, because three out of eight teams are Japanese clubs. I want to keep the title for Japan. Of course, as the defending champions, we want to win the title."
Battle-hardened Kashima Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira, of Brazil, leads his side against Adelaide, the first team from Australia to reach the last eight. "We showed the depth of Japanese football to the world by sending three teams to the knock-out round," he said. "Hopefully, two Japanese clubs will fight in the final. It gives us high motivation to become one of the them."
Kashima's hopes were boosted by Adelaide's 1-0 defeat to Melbourne Victory on Friday, with coach Aurelio Vidmar facing a struggle to gee up his side against the J-League champions. "We just need to pick ourselves up, mentally and physically," he said. "We really need people to stand up, everyone. It will be tough and only the strong will survive."
Gamba have the hardest task, with a trip to Syria and their recent form not boding well. They were recently eliminated from the Nabisco Cup, and are struggling in eighth in the J-League, losing at home again on Saturday.
Coach Akira Nishino said his charges would be aiming to make up for their poor domestic form in the continental competition. "We must fight a tough away game in Syria. Hopefully, we can regain the power that allowed us to get past the group round," he said.
The return legs are played on 24 September, with the final in November. At stake is a place at the FIFA Club World Cup in December, with the Asian Champions League winner lining up alongside other continental champions including Manchester United.