While Japan's national team is on course to become the first to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Japanese clubs are finding the 2013 Asian Champions League much harder to handle with three of four representatives far from certain of advancing to the second round.
Having top talent heading to Europe in increasing numbers may have helped Japan in the international arena, including a win over France in Paris last year, but the exodus of players has made it more difficult for domestic clubs to compete closer to home against South Korea and, increasingly, China.
Japan has had only one representative in the ACL quarterfinal stage in the last three years — eight Korean clubs have reached the quarterfinals during the same period — making the penultimate round of the group stage vital for J-League clubs this week.
Only Kashiwa Reysol appears almost certain to finish in the top two in its group and secure a place in the knockout stage. The 2011 J-League champion won three of its first four group games, which is one more victory than Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Vegalta Sendai and Urawa Reds have managed collectively.
Urawa hosts Chinese champion Guangzhou Evergrande in the biggest clash of the week. Guangzhou is full of stars and is under the direction of 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi. Urawa, which won the 2007 Asian title, knows that anything less than a win is likely to seal its elimination.
"I still think that we can progress to the next round," Urawa's Serbian coach Mihailo Petrovic said. "We have a tough game against Guangzhou but we are ready for it."
A draw will be enough for Lippi and his men to book a place in the last 16, and they're cautiously optimistic.
"We are at top, but the situation of this group can change easily," he said.
Sendai recovered from a poor start to defeat FC Seoul of South Korea in the previous round, its first ever win in the ACL tournament. The 2012 J-League runner-up faces a tough task to Buriram United of Thailand.
The group is tight, with only three points separating FC Seoul in first place and China's Jiangsu Sainty in fourth.
The biggest disappointment for Japanese fans this season has been Hiroshima. The reigning J-League champion has collected just one point from the first four games. The Purple Archers can postpone its inevitable elimination with a win at home over group leader Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.
Bunyokdor can progress with a win, and so can Pohang Steelers, the most successful team in Asian history with three titles.
Kashiwa Reysol was Japan's best performer in the 2012 tournament when it reached the second round and needs a draw at home against China's Guizhou Renhe to do the same in 2013.
Central Coast Mariners are hoping to finish second behind Kashiwa but Australia's sole representative needs a result at Suwon Bluewings to achieve that. The long trip to Korea will not be easy for the Mariners only a couple of days after winning the A-League grand final with a 2-0 victory Sunday over Western Sydney Wanderers in front of 41,000 fans
Two teams from the western half of the draw — the 32 clubs in the tournament are split into two zones until the quarterfinals to reduce traveling time as much as possible — have already confirmed their places in the last 16.
Last season's runnerup Al Ahli and Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia can afford to sit back ahead of the start of the knockout stage to see which teams will join them. Al Gharafa of Qatar, recently joined by Australian star Harry Kewell, is almost there while Lekhwiya is sitting in good position in Group B along with Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor.
Group D is the tightest as leader Esteghlal of Iran is only three points ahead of Qatar's Al Rayyan in fourth.