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ACL Legends: Japan

Kuala Lumpur: In the fourth edition of our AFC Champions League legends series, we turn the spotlight on Japan and highlight five icons who have graced Asia's premier club competition over the years. 

Three J.League clubs have tasted Continental glory in the AFC Champions League era, with Urawa Red Diamonds, Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers all having lifted the prestigious trophy, and players from the trio feature heavily in our selection.

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Yuki Abe

AFC Champions League Editions: 7

Having twice lifted the AFC Champions League trophy and once finished as a runner-up, Yuki Abe is among the most decorated players in the competition's history. The Urawa legend has scored in one final and captained the Reds in another as they have become the most successful Japanese team in Continental club football.

Having signed for the Saitama side in early 2007, the midfielder netted twice in the group stage and scored a crucial penalty in the semi-final shootout victory over Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. His most telling contribution, however, came in heading home his side's second in the second leg of the final against Sepahan as the 3-1 aggregate victory saw Urawa become the first Japanese team to lift the title.

While Urawa made the semi-finals as holders a year later, Abe and his side would have to wait until 2017 until they appeared in the showpiece event again. The veteran skippered his team to some stunning knockout round comebacks to set up a final against Al Hilal, with Urawa's 1-0 second-leg victory making it a perfect seven wins from seven at Saitama Stadium to mean, a decade after his first title, Abe became a two-time champion.

Two years on and now into his late 30s, Abe was more of a peripheral figure in 2019 yet he played a key role in the semi-final victory over Guangzhou Evergrande to give himself the chance of becoming only the second three-time winner. In a rematch against Al Hilal, Urawa were denied by a superior Saudi side as Abe, who made a late appearance off the bench in the second leg, suffered defeat in the final for the first time.

Yasuhito Endo

AFC Champions League Editions: 9

A legend for both club and country, Yasuhito Endo has won the lot with Gamba Osaka. Still turning out for the side at the grand old age of 40, it is now over 14 years ago since Endo scored on his first three AFC Champions League appearances, in 2006, only for the team to exit at the group stage.

Two years later, however, the Osaka side went unbeaten to lift the title with Endo producing a pair of inspirational performances in the semi-finals to help eliminate holders and bitter rivals Urawa. His penalty secured a 1-1 draw in the first leg before, away at the home of the defending champions in the return meeting, the midfielder created two and scored another as Gamba ran out 4-2 aggregate winners.

Adelaide United awaited in the final but the Australian side proved no match for Gamba, with Endo scoring the second and assisting the third in a 3-0 first-leg win en route to a 5-0 aggregate victory as the J.League club ensured the trophy remained in Japan for a second successive year.

While Endo and Gamba were regular fixtures in the ensuing years, it wasn't until 2015 that they made serious inroads into the competition again. As skipper, the creative midfielder led his side to the semi-finals only to suffer a narrow defeat to eventual champions Guangzhou Evergrande. His most recent appearance came in 2017, when Gamba exited at the group stage.

Shinzo Koroki

AFC Champions League Editions: 9

No Japanese player has scored more AFC Champions League goals than Shinzo Koroki, who has found the back of the net 26 six times, and in all nine editions he has appeared in, since making his Continental debut for Kashima Antlers back in 2008.

While Koroki never made it past the Round of 16 with Kashima, he did score in four successive campaigns between 2008 and 2011 before departing for Saitama Stadium, where he has since enjoyed considerable success and appeared in both the 2017 and 2019 finals.

In 2017, the instinctive goalscorer netted crucial goals in knockout round wins against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale before starting both legs of the final as Urawa were crowned kings of Asia for the second time.

While his side failed to win a third title in 2019, Koroki's contribution was arguably even greater. The diminutive frontman's goals – which included four headers – proved the difference in both the last 16 and quarter-finals, before another goal in the semi-final win over Guangzhou made it a best-ever eight for the tournament for the Miyazaki native.

Mitsuo Ogasawara

AFC Champions League Editions: 7

Having spent almost his entire career with Kashima Antlers – bar a brief stint in Italy – it was fitting that Mitsuo Ogasawara's final season before hanging up his boots culminated in the club winning the AFC Champions League for the first time as the midfielder added one more piece of silverware to his bulging trophy cabinet.

Fierce in the tackle, authoritative in possession and with an eye for a killer final ball, Ogasawara's composure and awareness made him the orchestrator of the Kashima midfield for many a year. After making his Continental debut in 2008, he then helped the J.league side advance to the knockout rounds in three successive campaigns between 2009 and 2011.

Kashima may have found their domestic success hard to replicate in the tournament but during the midfielder's seven AFC Champions League editions with the club, they only once failed to progress from the group stage. Then, in 2018, in what was the then 39-year-old's last campaign, Go Oiwa's men advanced all the way to the final.

After a 2-0 first-leg victory over the Islamic Republic of Iran's Persepolis, the J.league side secured a scoreless draw and the title in Tehran to mean, despite not getting any game time over the two legs, one of Ogasawara's final acts in a Kashima jersey was lifting the AFC Champions League trophy into the night sky in front of 100,000 spectators at Azadi Stadium.

Kengo Nakamura

AFC Champions League Editions: 7

More noted for his creative ability and wand of a left foot, one-club man Kengo Nakamura marked his AFC Champions League debut with a goal against Indonesia's Arema Malang back in 2007 as he skippered Kawasaki Frontale to the quarter-finals on their maiden appearance.

Nakamura was back in Continental action two years later and again on the scoresheet to eliminate defending champions and domestic rivals Gamba Osaka in the last 16, before scoring once more in the last eight only for Kawasaki to suffer defeat to another J.League rival, Nagoya Grampus.

So often the link between Kawasaki's midfield and frontline, fans' favourite Nakamura again guided his club to the knockout rounds in 2014 – a season that saw him complete more successful passes than any other player, despite only making the last 16. But it was in 2017 that he, and Kawasaki, missed out on their best chance of success.

In a campaign that saw Kawasaki win their first-ever J.League title, Nakamura created a joint-tournament-high seven goals on the Continent but, 4-1 up on aggregate after opening the scoring in the second leg of the quarter-final at Urawa, they proceeded to lose 5-4 over the two legs. It was a case of what could have been for both team and captain, but the AFC Champions League remains better off for having witnessed Nakamura's undoubted quality.

Now you've read up on our five Japan legends in the AFC Champions League, tell us who is your favourite by voting below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC 8) on April 24).

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