Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nagoya Grampus fly the flag for Japan

AFC Champions League
When the draw for the AFC Champions League group stage was made back in December 2008, few tipped unheralded Japanese side Nagoya Grampus as potential title contenders.

The general consensus was that Dragan Stojkovic's team had been lucky to sneak into third place in the J. League, and thereby qualify for the Asian Football Confederation's recently revamped continental jamboree.

It is perhaps a testament to the strength of the J. League that Nagoya have seen off challengers from Australia, South Korea, China and their native Japan to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League at their first attempt.

After topping their group, Nagoya defeated South Korean giants and defending K-League champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings in a hard-fought Round of 16 encounter.

Stojkovic's side then matched up with a confident Kawasaki Frontale in the quarter-finals, and it was here that their fighting spirit came to the fore.

Down 2-1 from the first leg in Tokyo, Nagoya roared back to win 3-1 in front of their home fans and book a showdown with two-times Asian champions Al-Ittihad from Saudi Arabia.

With the first leg set to take place tonight in Jeddah, Nagoya will hope to take something back to their Mizuho Athletics Stadium home a week later as they aim to book a place in a one-off final at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Their recent run has come despite injuries to Japan internationals Seigo Narazaki and Keiji Tamada, while Serb defender Milos Bajalica has also endured an injury-plagued Champions League campaign.

Fortunately for Nagoya fans, coach Stojkovic invested wisely over the summer - drafting in Australian striker Josh Kennedy, former Japan international Alessandro Santos and exciting Montenegrin youngster Igor Burzanovic mid-season.

All three have contributed to Nagoya's run to the final four, with Burzanovic in particular looking a shrewd investment for a team that also possesses rising star Maya Yoshida, tricky winger Yoshizumi Ogawa and mercurial Brazilian playmaker Magnum.

Japanese clubs have dominated the past three editions of the Champions League, with Urawa Reds lifting the crown in 2007, before Gamba Osaka went on to win in 2008.

What price Nagoya Grampus making it three from three for the Japanese?

After a forgettable campaign on the domestic front, the combustible Stojkovic will be desperate to lift some silverware at a club that hasn't tasted success for the best part of a decade.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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