Despite disaster Japanese clubs shine in Asia
Despite major disruptions caused by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, all four Japanese teams have progressed to the second round of the 2011 Asian Champions League.
With 32 teams from all over the Asian Football Confederation split into eight groups of four, Gamba Osaka finished top of its group while Nagoya Grampus, Kashima Antlers and Cerezo Osaka finished second to progress to the last 16.
The second round on May 24 and 25 does not consist of the usual home and away matches, but is a single leg played at the home of the group winners.
It has been a tough few weeks for everyone in Japan, including the football clubs. The J-League was just one game old when the earthquake forced a suspension of games until April 23.
Kashima's stadium suffered structural damage and is still not ready to use, forcing the club to play its home games 53 miles (85 kilometers) to the southwest in Tokyo.
''We had the earthquake and that forced us to suspend all our team activities for 16 days,'' Kashima coach Oswaldo Oliveira said. ''This stopped the development of our team. I knew it couldn't have been helped though.
''After that, we started with three away games before playing at the National Stadium, which is not exactly the same as we play at home in Kashima.''
Oliveira said the fact his team overcame its problems to advance was a tribute to the effort of all involved.
''Considering all those difficulties we suffered, plus the fact that we got through to the next round with one more match remaining last week, I think we can be given credit for our qualification for the Round of 16 this time, and the efforts from our players and our club staff members.''
A trademark free kick by Yasuhito Endo delivered Gamba Osaka a 2-0 win over China's Tianjin Teda in Group E and a place in the knockout stages.
Frustrated by a sodden pitch and an opponent that defended in numbers, Gamba looked like making a shock early exit from the competition until Japan playmaker Endo curled a free kick around the wall and into the top right corner in the 73rd minute to make it 1-0.
Tianjin had been intent on securing a draw that would have delivered home advantage in the one-leg round of 16, and Arie Haan's side showed its attacking hand only after falling behind.
The Chinese side had good shouts for a penalty in injury time but the referee waved play on.
With Tianjin committing men forward, Gamba substitute Shoki Hirai broke clear in the dying seconds and was brought down by Tianjin goalkeeper Yang Qipeng, who was sent off. Highly regarded youngster Takashi Usami converted the penalty.
''I am feeling relieved as we got through this stage,'' Gamba coach Akira Nishino said. ''It was a game we played with a lot of extra pressure.''
The win moved Gamba to the top of Group E, ahead of Tianjin on goal difference, meaning Gamba will next host crosstown rival Cerezo Osaka in the round of 16. Cerezo trounced China's Shandong Luneng 4-0 in Group G on Tuesday.
''It's a pity that we now have to play against a Japanese side, but we focused on nothing but winning the group,'' Nishino said. ''I will think about how to play (Cerezo) a little later.''
In Group F, China's Hangzhou Greentown snatched a 1-1 draw at home against Seoul. The point was enough to allow Seoul to move into the top spot, after Al Ain beat Japan's Nagoya Grampus 3-1. But the win for United Arab Emirates' club wasn't enough, forcing it to settle for third while Nagoya retained second to earn a spot in the knockout stage.
The team that finishes top will host Kashima Antlers in the round of 16, while the runner-up will travel to Suwon Bluewings. Kashima, which qualified last week from Group H, downed Sydney 2-1 on Tuesday.