J.League Column: The AFC Champions League seems out of reach

In the past four AFC Champions League competitions, Nagoya Grampus boasts the accolade of reaching the semi-finals but this year's teams look good to re-write history.

This week the Nabisco Cup has been getting fully into its stride, although only 14 J1 sides are involved in the group stages.

That is because the other four clubs are afforded a bye into the knockout stages as they are representing Japan in the AFC Champions League.

In its current format, the continental competition began in the 2002/03 season and saw 2001 J.League champions Kashima Antlers and 2001 Emperor’s Cup winners Shimizu S-Pulse qualify for the tournament.

J.League sides struggled in the early years though, and while Yokohama F.Marinos, Jubilo Iwata, Gamba Osaka and Tokyo Verdy all also took part in the group stages they weren’t able to progress any further.

Then, in 2007 both Japanese representatives – Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds – made it out of their groups. While Frontale fell at the quarter-final stage there was no stopping Urawa and the Saitama side became the first Japanese club to win the competition, beating Sepahan of Iran 3-1 on aggregate to make history.

The defending champions could only make it to the semi-finals the next season, but Japanese football was still celebrating as Gamba Osaka this time claimed the glory, hammering Adelaide United of Australia 5-0 over the two-legged final.

Since that glorious spell J.League sides have experienced a downturn in fortunes in the ACL though, and in the past four editions only Nagoya Grampus have made it as far as the semi-finals.

This year’s entrants – 2012 J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, runners-up Vegalta Sendai, third-placed Urawa Reds and Emperor’s Cup winners Kashiwa Reysol – have enjoyed varied starts to their campaigns, and while Sanfrecce need a miracle to progress after three defeats in a row the other J1 sides still all have realistic chances of making it to the knockout stage.