Having a vested interest in both European and Asian football means there is something to look forward to all year round, but the flip side of this is that it can take the edge off the start of the seasons. While the title races in the major leagues in Europe begin to heat up and the Champions League enters its knockout phase, it can, of course, be easy to forget that the new J League campaign is almost upon us as well. This year, however, has somehow felt rather different. I have still been watching as much football from back home as ever, but I am finding myself increasingly glued to the Japanese transfer news, excitedly watching uneventful Pan Pacific Championship coverage on television, and even going to rugby matches to fill the yearning void of real, live action. Put simply, I cannot wait for the 2009 J League to begin.
It may, I suppose, be partly down to this job, but I think the main cause for my excitement was the incredible end to last season that left observers crying out for more. Even if we leave aside the dual triumphs in the ACL and Emperor’s Cup achieved by my own team, Gamba Osaka – not to mention third place in the Club World Cup and a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Manchester United – the 2008 J League season was more compact and competitive than ever before, and the drama just got better and better until the very end. A second successive title for Kashima Antlers came only after a head-to-head battle with Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale on the last day, with three further teams having remained in contention until a weekend before. The scrap at the bottom was even closer, for everyone up to 13th place Omiya Ardija were still in danger going into their final games, and though Tokyo Verdy were ultimately destined to join Consadole Sapporo in falling back down to J2, their fate was only confirmed after a minor miracle up in Chiba. Needing to win and for other results to go their way, JEF United came back from 2-0 down in the final 16 minutes of the season to beat FC Tokyo 4-2 and avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth.
The effect of Alex Miller’s arrival as manager in mid-season was simply remarkable – having scraped just 10 points from their opening 17 games, Chiba accumulated 28 points in the second half of the season and would have finished fourth had they started in a similar vein – and this would suggest that a relegation battle ought not to be on the agenda in the coming campaign. The same, however, cannot be said of J1 mainstays Jubilo Iwata. Once the most successful team in the land, Jubilo finished way down in 16th last year, and ultimately had to overcome Vegalta Sendai of J2 over two legs to avoid having to swap divisions. Despite the managerial appointment of Masaaki Yanagishita, a man who knows the club inside out, the only new playing arrival of any note is defender Daisuke Nasu – a direct replacement for the departed Makoto Tanaka – and Jubilo look set therefore to rely chiefly on the injury-prone Ryoichi Maeda for goals once again. With Sanfrecce Hiroshima having stormed to the J2 title and, together with second-place Montedio Yamagata, looking a better bet to be competitive in the top flight than either Sapporo or Verdy were last year, the margins for error at the bottom are set to be tighter than ever in 2009.
This all means that teams like Omiya, Albirex Niigata, and Kyoto Sanga cannot afford to stand still either, but the new season will also be a critical year for another of the league’s bigger clubs. Yokohama F Marinos enjoyed back-to-back title successes as recently as 2003 and 2004, but after the heavy disappointment of one seventh place and three ninth place finishes since then, the team has now reached something of a crossroads. Like Jubilo, there has been little transfer activity in Yokohama over the close season, and the team will therefore stake its future on the performances of younger players such the returning striker Mike Havenaar. On loan at J2 side Avispa Fukuoka, Havenaar netted seven times in 2008, but the son of former Jubilo goalkeeper Dido has never previously scored in the top flight, and will need to learn quickly if his side are to recover their winning ways.