The sight of Gamba Osaka running out at Expo '70 Stadium tonight is unlikely to fill their fans with hope. It's more likely to fill those in attendance with a sense of trepidation as the team currently leading the J. League standings does battle with defending Nabisco Cup champions Jubilo Iwata for a trophy no one genuinely wants to win.
Last weekend, Gamba celebrated twenty years at their Banpaku home with a well deserved 1-0 win over bitter rivals Urawa Reds which kept them top of the league. Tonight, however, Gamba run out at their crumbling home ground to take part in one of the most chaotically organised League Cup competitions in recent history.
March's devastating Tōhoku earthquake not only saw the J. League put on hold, it also prompted the complete reorganisation of the League Cup - known to all and sundry as the Nabisco Cup after its biscuit-producing sponsor. Two rounds of hastily arranged home-and-away fixtures were organised but as in previous seasons, Japan's four AFC Champions League representatives parachuted in at the quarter-final stage.
That means Gamba Osaka, their crosstown rivals Cerezo, defending league champions Nagoya Grampus and 2010 Emperor's Cup champions Kashima Antlers now run out for the first time this season in a competition supposed to represent the best knock-out football Japan has to offer. That is palpably not the case - the JFA-administered Emperor's Cup is a far superior tournament - but so redundant is this year's League Cup, the J. League must finally address the issue.
The first step is to permanently do away with the pointless group stage in favour of a straight knock-out format. The second is to reintroduce J2 teams, giving fans the opportunity to see new teams in action and encouraging both underdogs and favourites to treat the competition seriously. The third step is for the J. League to otherwise accept that some teams may not field full-strength starting elevens, instead offering a run-out to fringe first-team members. If that encourages opponents to go for the jugular against more illustrious rivals, so much the better.
As it stands, the current format offers little prestige to those who lift the trophy. Oita Trinita won it in 2008 and were relegated from the top flight a year later. FC Tokyo ultimately suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, Jubilo came within two minutes of losing last year's final only to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 5-3 in extra-time. Jubilo's reward was a trophy and a cash prize, but there was no place in the AFC Champions League for Masaaki Yanagishita's men and the Shizuoka outfit ended up finishing eleventh in the league.
Jubilo's win was a welcome one for the recently success-starved club, but it also highlighted the fact most teams only care about the Nabisco Cup once they've reached the final. That's the same case in most countries, but it seems a mediocrity the J. League is willing to endure. They should do so no longer, because tonight's League Cup clashes will inspire enthusiasm from only the most die-hard of supporters, with most neutrals concentrating on the fact Japan are in action later in the week.
And should Gamba or fellow title chasers Nagoya Grampus and Yokohama F. Marinos lose key personnel to injuries tonight, the clamour for a total overhaul of Japan's never-ending Nabisco Cup nonsense will grow louder still.
Nabisco Cup quarter-final schedule:
Wednesday, October 5 (all 7pm kick-offs)
Kashima Antlers vs Yokohama F. Marinos (Kashima Stadium)
Nagoya Grampus vs Albirex Niigata (Mizuho Stadium)
Gamba Osaka vs Jubilo Iwata (Expo '70 Stadium)
Cerezo Osaka vs Urawa Reds (Nagai Stadium)