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Ready to go – Part 2: From the other hopefuls to those just hoping to survive

4 Mar 2011(Fri)

Last week, this column looked at the prospects of the four J. League clubs – champions Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka, and Kashima Antlers – whose competitive seasons began with varying fortunes this Tuesday and Wednesday in the AFC Champions League. But which members of the chasing pack, without the added pressure of away trips across Asia to contend with, are looking best placed to mount genuine title challenges of their own?

 

Predicting the clubs set to break through and those more likely to simply break down is a notoriously tricky endeavour in Japan. While Nagoya’s return to the championship race was little surprise after a lengthy run in the ACL saw them drop to ninth in 2009, few would have expected newly-promoted Cerezo to overcome the loss of Shinji Kagawa and finish as high as third in their first top flight campaign since relegation in 2006. Even more shocking was the fall from grace of FC Tokyo, who – in an eerie parallel to the Oita Trinita side of the previous season – dropped down to J2 just 12 months after their highly talented squad had finished fifth in the league and won the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup. An outflux of key players to Europe over the winter complicates the situation even further in 2011.

 

Fifth and sixth respectively last term, Kawasaki Frontale and Shimizu S-Pulse are perhaps clouded by the most uncertainty as both prepare for transitional campaigns under new managers and with significant changes in playing personnel. This column’s tip for the title a year ago, Kawasaki started well enough but lost Eiji Kawashima and Jong Tae-Se after the World Cup. Falling some 18 points off the Grampus pace saw Tsutomu Takahata replaced after a sole season in charge by former defender Naoki Soma, who would have led Machida Zelvia to promotion from the third-tier JFL last autumn had their ground met J. League standards.

 

The loss of Vitor Junior is a blow, but Frontale got the better end of a deal that saw Yusuke Tanaka and Koji Yamase arrive from Yokohama F. Marinos with Hiroyuki Taniguchi heading the other way. Three senior defenders have been replaced by a trio of rookies fresh out of education, but much still depends on the fitness of veteran forward Juninho – who scored 14 goals in 19 appearances during an injury-hit 2010.

 

If the changes have been sweeping at Todoroki, S-Pulse are practically starting again from a whole new blueprint. For two years in a row, the Nihondaira club have looked the real deal over the first half of the campaign only to collapse in the second, and Kenta Hasegawa’s reign as manager came to a sad end with defeat to Kashima in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day. Out the door with him go 13 players, including fully seven regular starters.

 

Having led Iran to the last eight of January’s Asian Cup, replacement boss Afshin Ghotbi will look to a pair of 31-year-olds, Shinji Ono and new arrival Naohiro Takahara, to resume the creative partnership that once well served the Japanese national team. Alex Brosque (Sydney FC) and Daigo Kobayashi (Iraklis) have been brought in to offer attacking alternatives following the inevitable departures of Shinji Okazaki and Jungo Fujimoto, but the team lacks options both in defensive midfield and at full back, and it may well be that the loss of Takuya Honda to Kashima proves most painful. For Shimizu, it is surely all about the long term.

 

Over the past few seasons, Albirex Niigata have consistently offered a pleasant surprise; the only thing that Urawa Reds have offered on a regular basis is disappointment. It was therefore perhaps logical that the supposed bigger club from Saitama sought to rebuild by pinching the two standout names in last year’s Albirex squad, Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata. Richardes in particular is a massive coup after 16 goals – including seven direct free kicks and an improbable PK-FK-CK hat-trick – from midfield last season, and should prove a good role model for another Brazilian newcomer, the pacey 21-year-old Mazola from São Paulo.

 

Now led by former Reds midfielder Željko Petrović, Urawa have potentially profited from the winter’s transfer activity more than any other J1 club, and even accounting for the losses of Hajime Hosogai and veteran playmaker Robson Ponte, can boast a strong blend of established talent and youthful promise. Tenth position last year was an accurate reflection of the team’s atrocious underperformance, and while they perhaps still rely a little too heavily on Edmilson for goals, surely another season of stagnation is unthinkable. As for Niigata, Daigo Nishi’s move to Kashima is another loss, but Hisashi Kurosaki will look to rebuild with the trusted template of youth development coupled with intelligent recruitment – midfielder Naoya Kikuchi looks a good buy from Oita Trinita.

 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima appear a strong bet for an improved league position this season after their first experience of continental football last term. The squad is virtually unchanged from that which has finished fourth and seventh in the two seasons since Sanfrecce were crowned J2 champions in 2008, save for the departure of Japan defender Tomoaki Makino to FC Köln. Now 25, Hiroki Mizumoto gets another chance to finally realise his potential as Makino’s replacement after suffering relegation with Kyoto Sanga. Yokohama F. Marinos, meanwhile, have brought in the ever-hungry Masashi Oguro as a partner for Kazuma Watanabe, while there can be no more excuses for new captain Shunsuke Nakamura as he seeks to lead his hometown club to greater things than the eighth place finish of 2010.

 

Of the three newly-promoted sides, Kashiwa Reysol look comfortably the best placed to make an impact upon their immediate return to the top flight. Brazilian manager Nelsinho Baptista brings experience and tactical sophistication to a side that won J2 by ten clear points – with the best attacking and defensive records in the division – and has been further strengthened by arrivals such as Akihiro Hyodo (Shimizu), An Yong-Hak (Omiya Ardija) and Jorge Wagner (São Paulo). By contrast, Avispa Fukuoka have unfortunately lost a couple of key players and though the Kyushu outfit shouldn’t struggle quite as much as Shonan Bellmare did last year, survival will be a real challenge. Ventforet Kofu have done well to equip themselves with several players offering J1 experience, but might suffer from the fact that none of the established top flight clubs can surely be as bad as the 2010 Kyoto ‘vintage’.

 

One also worries for Montedio Yamagata and Vissel Kobe. Shinji Kobayashi’s side made a lot of friends upon arriving in J1 in 2009 and did well to consolidate their top flight status with 13th place last year. The returns to Kashima of loanees Yuzo Tashiro and Chikashi Masuda, however, mean much will depend upon a return to form for Yu Hasegawa, as well of the instant impact of new signings like defender Hugo Alcântara from Romanian club CFR Cluj. Kobe did superbly to go unbeaten over the last seven games of 2010 and secure their survival with a 4-0 final day win in Urawa, but lest we forget that they only did so at the expense of two of the weakest teams and perhaps the biggest bottlers in J1 history. Ambition is one thing, but comments by the likes of Yoshito Okubo about breaking into the top four hint, yet again, at ideas well above their station. The squad looks barely stronger than last season’s, and Kobe’s players will do well to remember that their first priority is to survive.

 

Masahiro Wada’s men may even need to rely on one of the top ten doing an FC Tokyo or Oita Trinita. Jubilo Iwata are little changed from 2010, meaning continued over-reliance on Ryoichi Maeda, but then again the 29-year-old hitman does have every reason to be confident after finally enjoying international success to go with his unprecedented two consecutive J. League Golden Boots. 2009 J2 champions Vegalta Sendai, meanwhile, could catch a number of sides that finished above them last year unawares after a string of quality signings, including centre-back Cho Byung-Kuk from Asian champions Seongnan Ilhwa Chunma and veteran striker Marquinhos – he of the 80 goals and three league titles in four seasons with Kashima.

 

Finally, Omiya Ardija hold the dubious distinction of being the sole Kanto-based J1 regular not to enjoy excessive adulation from the supposed national Japanese press. Considering how frequently they have beaten media darlings Urawa in the Saitama derby – most recently by a 3-0 scoreline in their pre-season friendly on 20 February – you would think people should know better by now, but such underestimation ultimately only serves to benefit the Squirrels. Substantial growth may be unlikely, but additions like midfielder Kota Ueda (Jubilo Iwata) and promising defender Kim Yong-Gwon (FC Tokyo) should at least help maintain the status quo of lower mid-table.

 

Full table predictions will be published on this page tomorrow morning ahead of the opening day’s fixtures.

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