SEOUL (AP) — Japan's football league is generally regarded as the best in Asia, but as its clubs struggle to prove their superiority against regional rivals in the Asian Champions League, that title could be under threat.
In group stage matches played last week, J-League teams lost to Chinese, Korean and Australian opponents to continue a dismal start that has seen the country's four representatives record a single victory out of a combined total of eight games.
Japan's troubles are not confined to this year. It's been six years since Japan last produced an AFC Champions League winner, and since 2010, just two of the country's 16 teams have made it as far as the quarterfinal stage, compared to nine from South Korea.
High-paying Chinese clubs have also improved in recent years, with Guangzhou Evergrande — led by 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi — taking the title in 2013. Guangzhou trounced Japan's Kashiwa Reysol 8-1 on aggregate on the way to the title.
"Club budgets are growing in many Asian countries, while J-League budgets are either decreasing or remaining the same," Afshin Ghotbi, head coach of Shimizu S-Pulse and former Iran national team coach, told The Associated Press. "Obviously, player's salaries are a huge factor in attracting talent."
One J-League team, Cerezo Osaka, made a high-profile signing earlier this year — Uruguay star Diego Forlan. But according to Philippe Troussier, Japan's national coach from 1998 -2002, that was an isolated case.
"The foreign players make the difference at the moment in China, as we can see in Guangzhou," said the Frenchman, who recently completed a three-year coaching stint with Shenzhen Ruby in southern China. "Chinese clubs are getting better than Japanese clubs because they have better foreign players."
Despite having Forlan, Cerezo Osaka lost to China's Shandong Luneng 3-1 earlier this month at home, with Shandong getting two goals from former Brazilian international Vagner Love.
Most disappointing for Japanese fans is the performance of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, domestic champion in 2012 and 2013. The team has failed to win any of its last eight games in Asia, though Ghotbi puts its struggles partly down to the league's style of play.
"The trend in the J-League has been recently to defend deep and in numbers and look for counter attacks. Hiroshima has been champion playing a very defensive 5-4-1 organization and while this has been a successful formula at home, it has not produced success in Asia," he said.
Ahead of this year's AFC Champions League tournament, Hiroshima coach Hajime Moriyasu promised his team would improve.
"Last year, we were not technically or tactically inferior, but overpowered by our opponents' physical strength," he said. "We need to win our home games. The teams that compete in the AFC Champions League use different tactics when playing home or away. We have to get those vital three points in our own stadium."
Hiroshima hosts South Korea's FC Seoul on Wednesday and needs to break that winless streak if it is to have a chance to progress to the knockout stage.
In other AFC Champions League matches this week, Guangzhou hosts one of its biggest rivals, Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea.
It marks the third consecutive year that the two teams have faced each other in the group stage and, after bad-tempered clashes in the past, there is no love lost between them.
Jeonbuk, the 2006 champion and 2011 finalist, has started the season well with a 3-0 win over Japan's Yokohama F. Marinos and a 2-2 draw last week with the Melbourne Victory.
Guangzhou, meanwhile, has been led by Italy international Alessandro Diamanti, who is currently the competition's top scorer with three goals from the first two games.
Australian teams are hoping to build on their impressive results from the previous round of games. Central Coast Mariners travels to Beijing Guoan, Western Sydney Wanderers takes on Kawasaki Frontale, the only Japanese team to record a victory so far, and Melbourne hosts Yokohama F. Marinos.
Ulsan Horangi of South Korea, which recorded two wins in its first two games, can take another step toward the last 16 with a win at home against Guizhou Renhe.
In the western half, Abu Dhabi giant Al-Jazeera faces a tough trip to Tehran to take on 2013 semifinalist Esteghlal, while 2011 champion Al Sadd hosts Saudi Arabian giant Al Hilal.