Kawasaki: Having failed to reach the last eight stage in their last two appearances in the AFC Champions League, Kawasaki Frontale are back in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. And, like that continental campaign eight years ago, they will once again clash with their countrymen. This time Urawa Red Diamonds will be their opponents, while before it was Nagoya Grampus.
The quarter-final defeat to Nagoya in 2009, was the second consecutive last eight elimination for Kawasaki. Their maiden appearance at the AFC Champions League had come two years earlier.
Drawn in a Group F with Korea Republic’s Chunnam Dragons, Arema Malang of Indonesia and Thai club Bangkok University, the Japanese side breezed through the first phase with five wins in six games as they went undefeated to top the standings.
In the Knockout Stage, though, the J.League club came unstuck. After 210 minutes of football over two legs with no goals, Kawasaki were eliminated on a penalty shoot-out by the eventual runners-up, Sepahan of IR Iran.
The club then failed to qualify for the 2008 AFC Champions League but were back in the continental competition a year later after finishing as 2008 J.League runners-up.
Kawasaki were placed in a group with eventual champions Pohang Steelers of Korea, Chinese club Tianjin Teda and Australia’s Central Coast Mariners.
This time the Group Stage proved more difficult, but with two teams progressing from each group into the debuting Round of 16, Kawasaki were once again able to secure passage to the Knockout Stage, albeit finishing behind Pohang in second place, two points ahead of Tianjin.
Kawasaki were drawn to face compatriots and defending champions Gamba Osaka in the last 16 but, despite twice going behind, were able to top the team from Kansai and once again book a quarter-final spot.
A second consecutive meeting with Japanese opposition followed, but over the two legs Nagoya edged Kawasaki 4-3 on aggregate.
The club did return to the AFC Champions League the following year but it proved to be their most disappointing campaign yet as they were eliminated in the Group Stage.
That would be their last appearance for four years until the 2014 tournament, where they made the knockout rounds for a third time.
FC Seoul were the opponents in the Round of 16 this time around but Kawasaki’s 3-2 defeat at home in the first leg proved too much of a deficit to overcome as the K-League club progressed on away goals.
Kawasaki would then once more miss out on continental football for a period as the 2015 and 2016 AFC Champions League competitions came and went without the sky-blue shirts of the club on display.
However, Kawasaki’s third place finish in the 2016 J.League season was enough to see them return to Asian club football.
Kawasaki’s progress to the knockout stages looked anything but certain, though, after the first four matches of Group G when the Sky Blues improbably, but consistently, drew every match.
However, two crucial wins in the remaining games over Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Eastern SC saw the Japanese side top the group ahead of China’s two-time AFC Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande.
Kawasaki’s reward for their efforts was a last 16 meeting with Thai champions Muangthong United, a side that had been in particularly potent form at home where they boasted a 100% record.
Nevertheless, even after going a goal down on the stroke of half-time, the visitors made light of any pressure they may have felt at Thunderdome Stadium as Kengo Nakamura, Yu Kobayashi and Hiroyuki Abe all netted as Kawasaki came away from the first leg in Nonthaburi with a 3-1 aggregate lead.
And the return meeting at Todoroki Athletics Stadium could not have gone much better. Kobayashi, Tatsuya Hasegawa and Eduardo Neto were on target as Kawasaki enjoyed a commanding 6-1 advantage on aggregate at the interval.
Rhayner then added Kawasaki’s fourth of the night before Teerasil Dangda scored a late consolation for the visitors, which was the only minor blemish as the J.League club cruised into the quarter-finals.
Striker Kobayashi has been Kawasaki’s main source of goals, although it was their miserly defence that rose to the fore in the group stage when they conceded just three times in six games.
Also noteworthy is the consistently high possession percentage and passing accuracy stats that the club chalked up with veteran creator-in-chief Nakamura, set to turn 37 this October, continuing to ooze class on the ball.
Along with Kobayashi and Nakamura, Brazilian Eduardo Neto and forward Abe have performed key roles, while youngsters Hasegawa and Koji Miyoshi have also made important contributions to the team.
The Coach: Toru Oniki
Toru Oniki made more than 150 appearances for Kawasaki during his playing days. Following the departure of Yahiro Kazama to Nagoya Grampus, Oniki was handed his first head coach role as he was appointed to the helm ahead of the 2017 J.League season. The 43-year-old previously worked with the Kawasaki youth teams and backroom staff, and was registered as assistant coach during the 2014 AFC Champions League campaign when Kawasaki reached the Round of 16 stage before their elimination at the hands of Korea Republic side FC Seoul. As well as his time with Kawasaki, Oniki turned out in midfield for first club Kashima Antlers.
The Key Player: Kengo Nakamura
The definitive one-club man, Kengo Nakamura has spent his entire professional career at Kawasaki Frontale. Having made well over 500 appearances for the club and now into his 15th season, Nakamura, 36, is also an example of age not proving a barrier when he was named J.League MVP and Japanese Footballer of the Year for the first time last year. The playmaker continues to show his ability at the heart of Kawasaki’s midfield where he is known for his outstanding touch, vision and passing. Having already appeared at two AFC Champions League quarter-finals in 2007 and 2009, Nakamura will be looking to go at least one better this year.
Kawasaki Frontale vs Urawa Red Diamonds
(Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium)
Urawa Red Diamonds vs Kawasaki Frontale
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Photos: Lagardère Sports