Last year Nagoya Grampus Eight finally clinched their maiden J.League title under the apt tutelage of club legend Dragan Stojkovic, and it must be said they did so with relative ease.
With the success of the Japanese national team – Alberto Zaccheroni guided them to the 2011 Asian Cup trophy in Qatar – and with an increased number of Japanese players making a name for themselves in Europe, the spotlight has been shone on one of Asia’s strongest leagues. Indeed, the Japanese Football Association’s flagship 100-year plan is now beginning to bear fruit.
Japanese football however, has always been unpredictable, and the identity of this season’s winning club is far from a foregone conclusion. Nagoya will of course be in the mix, but the traditional powerhouses of Kashima Antlers, Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds will all be looking to take back their place at the top of the J.League.
We look at the sides preparing to do battle in Japan’s top flight:
Perennial mid-tablers Niigata haven’t made real progress since they were promoted in 2004. Finishing anywhere between fourteenth and sixth has been all that the club has to show for their ambitions at present – apart from stability.
South Korean international Cho Young-Cheol scored the goals for Niigata last season, and will be largely relied upon to hit the back of the net this season as well.
Key Arrivals: Naoki Ishikawa (Kashiwa Reysol), Naoya Kikuchi (Oita Trinita), João Paulo (Avaí), Seiya Fujita (Consadole Sapporo)
Key Departures: Mitsuru Nagata, Marcio Richardes (Urawa Red Diamonds), Kisho Yano (Freiburg), Fagner (Corinthians)
Newly promoted Avispa had their troubles breaking into the J.League again, but now the country’s third largest island of Kyushuu have their representative back in the first division. After a failed experiment with Pierre Littbarski and a handful of Australian players, Avispa turned to Yosoyuki Shinoda who aptly replaced the internationals with young local players. Never a heavy hitter in Japanese football, Avispa will be just looking to stay up and enjoy their time back in the limelight.
However, there was no room for fan favourite Tetsuya Okubo, as he was judged to be surplus to requirements for the upcoming task.
Key Arrivals: Takumi Wada (JEF United Chiba), Shogo Kobara (Ehime FC), Takuya Matsuura, Sho Naruoka (Jubilo Iwata), Norihisa Shimizu (Yokohama F. Marinos)
Key departures: Tetsuya Okubo (Montedio Yamagata), Genki Nagasato (Ventforet Kofu), Kiyokazu Kudo (retired), Tomokazu Nagira (FC Tokyo), Takanori Nakajima (Kashiwa Reysol)
After storming back into the J.League largely due to the help of current Borussia Dortmund star, Shinji Kagawa, Cerezo found themselves in the unlikely position of fourth last season. Largely overshadowed by their more illustrious neighbours Gamba, the Levir Culpi-led side will be looking to build on a fantastic season back in the top flight. Many of the plaudits must go to Culpi, who has worked with the team since 2007 to form this well-oiled machine.
Once a true great in the now defunct Japan Soccer League, Cerezo could yet again surprise this season with some interesting signings, and not too many departures.
Key Arrivals: Rodrigo Pimpao (Vasco da Gama – loan), Kim Bo Kyung (Oita Trinita – loan return), Yutaro Takahashi (Vissel Kobe), Shu Kurata (Gamba Osaka – loan)
Key Departures: Kenji Haneda (Vissel Kobe), Amaral (released), Adriano (Internacional – loan return), Naoya Ishigami (Shonan Bellmare), Tatsuya Yamashita (Consadole Sapporo)
Gamba Osaka have to be one of Japan’s most consistent clubs in the J.League at present and their late surge last season saw them take a rightful second place behind champions Nagoya. Although behind their Aichi neighbours on points, Gamba certainly still have the class to win the league. Even in 2008, when finishing a disappointing eighth, the Osaka-based team still had the verve to win the Asian Champions League, and the Emperor’s Cup.
The most impressive thing about Gamba’s 2010 effort might well have been the emergence of Takashi Usami, who at just 18 years old scored nine goals, from midfield. Having the ability to shoot and pass from even this tender age, Usami could yet evolve into a bigger star than team-mate Yasuhito Endo.
Gamba have the arsenal to take on the rest of the J.League this year and, as always, should be true contenders for silverware provided they maintain a balance between the Champions League and their domestic ambitions.
Key Arrivals: Adriano (Internacional), Kim Seung-Yong (Hyundai Jeonbuk Motors)
Key Departures: Lucas (Atletico Paranaense), Michihiro Yasuda (Vitesse Arnhem), Dodo (released), Cho Jae-Jin (released), Akihiro Ienaga (RCD Mallorca), Masato Yamazaki (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Slipping ever so gradually down the J.League, the boys from Iwata have fallen from grace since their heady days in the late 90s and early 2000s. 11th was their reward last year, and that was mostly down to the striking instincts of Ryoichi Maeda who equal top scored with Nagoya’s Joshua Kennedy.
It seems that if Maeda stays on form, and stays at the club, then Jubilo’s blushes should be saved, but it is an awful burden for one player to carry.
Recently overshadowed by their Shizuoka neighbours, S-Pulse, Iwata should be looking to at least better their rivals.
Key Arrivals: Minoru Suganuma (Kashiwa Reysol), Yoshiaki Fujita (Oita Trinita)
Key Departures: Yusuke Inuzuka (Ventforet Kofu), Kota Ueda (Omiya Ardija)
Kashiwa surprisingly won automatic promotion from the second tier last season ahead of local rivals JEF United Chiba and a host of other clubs. A surprise package of sorts, they bounced back into the J.League after one season.
Consolidating their position in the country’s top flight is far from impossible with the players at their disposal, and with the addition of Koki Mizuno from Celtic, will truly provide a boost to the club.
Compared to some of the other relegation candidates, Kashiwa should be relatively safe, but will hardly do anything spectacular.
Key Arrivals: Takanori Nakajima (Avispa Fukuoka), Akihiro Hyodo (Shimizu S-Pulse), Tatsuya Masushima (Kyoto Sanga), An Yong-Hak (Omiya Ardija)
Key departures: Alceu (Gremio Prudente), Yuzo Kobayashi (Yokohama F. Marinos), Masahiro Koga, Minoru Suganuma (Jubilo Iwata)
Seven times champions Kashima Antlers were a little out of sorts last season, and were perhaps a little rattled to lose the title to Nagoya, and be overtaken by their Osakan counterparts in the final few days of competition. However, with the Emperor’s Cup in their hands after victory over Shimizu on New Years Day, the Ibaraki team look set to make another dash for the title.
The addition of the exciting Takuya Honda will have some Antlers fans salivating as the youngster adds to an already enviable midfield, which should be one of their main strengths.
With such a star studded team, it is difficult to starve such a dominant group of success for too long. However, with Asian Champions League competition to deal with too, fatigue will play a part over a long campaign.
Key Arrivals: Alex (JEF United Chiba), Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse), Carlao (Uniao de Leiria), Daigo Nishi (Consadole Sapporo), Akihiro Sato (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Key Departures: Go Oiwa (retired), Gilton Ribeiro (Porto Alegre – loan return), Marquinhos (Velgata Sendai)
Since their return to the J.League in 2005, Kawasaki have gone on to be bridesmaids three times. Possibly one of the least heard about teams in terms of the top half of the table, Kawasaki have been secretly developing their own empire.
A succession of coaches hasn’t helped the club’s goal of winning the league, but the likes of Kengo Nakamura have made sure the core players have stuck about to support their team.
Losing Jong Tae-Se last season to Bundesliga side Bochum hurt their hopes, but Brazilian striker Juninho has hardly done a bad job filling in for the North Korean with a handy return of 17 goals in 33 appearances last season.
Key Arrivals: Yusuke Tanaka, Koji Yamase (Yokohama F. Marinos), Kosei Shibasaki (Tokyo Verdy)
Key departures: Hideki Sahara (retired), Vitor Junior (released), Shuhei Terada (retired), Hiroyuki Taniguchi (Yokohama F. Marinos)
A team deeply rooted in their community, Yamagata have set out to make themselves the flagship sporting association of their region.
Coached by Shinji Kobayashi, Montedio have steadily been solidifying their position in the J.League, but like so many other clubs, a run of bad results could see them in the relegation dogfight. They escaped by six points last time around, but will have to work very hard to stay out of the J2 this season.
Former Avispa striker Tetsuya Okubo has joined the ranks, however there are still some major question marks over the quality of the side.
Key Arrivals: Tetsuya Okubo (Avispa Fukuoka), Hugo (CFR Cluj), Osama Elsmani (free agent), Yuji Funayama (Kashima Antlers), Ryo Kobayashi (Kashiwa Reysol)
Key departures: Kim Byung-Suk, Han Dong-Won (released)
Nagoya Grampus Eight
Three years in the making, Nagoya took the J.League by storm last season, winning the title with relative ease. The players did their job as reflected by five Nagoya players being present in the J.League seasonal Best Eleven, with veteran keeper Seigo Narazaki taking Most Valuable Player honours.
Coach Stojkovic has managed to keep a hold of his championship winning team and will be very confident of another title tilt with a good showing at the Asian Champions League thrown in for good measure. The only real change is the addition of former Shimizu S-Pulse man Jungo Fujimoto, who by all rights should be an impressive capture for the Orcas considering the goals he scored for his former club.
Managing changing focuses will be key to Nagoya’s success, as many sides that have had Champions League jaunts in recent years have run into trouble in the league, as Nagoya themselves learned, going from third in 2008 to seventh in 2009 despite getting to the quarter-finals of the competition.
Key Arrivals: Jungo Fujimoto (Shimizu S-Pulse), Kensuke Nagai (drafted from Fukuoka University)
Key Departures: Magnum (released)
Ardija have not been in the JFA’s good books of late, with the club being accused of inflating their crowd figures. The Saitama club have since ushered in a new president with the team hoping to leave the controversy behind them.
With former South Korean golden boy Lee Chun-Soo finding his feet north of Tokyo, fans will be happy to see their team with some key quality where it matters. However, after just clearing relegation by six points, Jun Suzuki will be hoping to make Omiya’s stay a little more comfortable this season.
Key Arrivals: Keigo Higashi (Oita Trinita), Shusuke Tsubouchi (Vissel Kobe), Daigo Watanabe (Kyoto Sanga), Koto Ueda (Jubilo Iwata), Kim Young-Gwon, Yosuke Kataoka (FC Tokyo)
Key departures: Mato Neretjlak (Suwon Bluewings), An Yong-Hak (Kashiwa Reysol), Lee Ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Tomoya Uchida (Ventforet Kofu)
A strong spine has been one of the main reasons for the success in Hiroshima. Captain Hisato Sato and goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa in particular have been fantastic in keeping the team competitive.
Coach Mihailo Petrovic has truly moulded the team from scratch having taken over five years ago when Sanfrecce still resided in the J2. Qualification for the Asian Champions League was their reward in 2009, but last year Sanfrecce didn’t quite hit those lofty heights.
With a true Slavic flavour to the team, Petrovic’s men should be a solid side this season and will surely find themselves in the top half of the table yet again.
Key Arrivals: Hiroki Mizumoto (Kyoto Sanga), Ante Tomic (FC Koper), Davit Mujiri (free agent), Satoru Yamagishi (Kawasaki Frontale), Masato Yamazaki (Gamba Osaka)
Key departures: Takashi Shimoda (retired), Illian Stoyanov (Fagiano Okayama), Tomoaki Makino (1. FC Koln), Akihiro Sato (Kashima Antlers)
The talk is of a revolution at Shimizu as the club build upon a decent showing last year, having finished in sixth. Kenta Hasegawa, a former fan favourite as a player has stepped down and now Iranian legend Afshin Ghotbi has taken the helm. A former student of the great Guus Hiddink, Ghotbi is continuing to add to a burgeoning reputation following some good showings with his native Iran and more than a few impressive apprenticeships.
The big disappointment for Shimizu fans will be the loss of Shinji Okazaki, a guaranteed 15-goal a season striker, and along with Japan international Jungo Fujimoto, things are looking a little bleak for the Shizuoka based club considering the duo had scored 26 of the club’s 60 goals between them. With so many experienced campaigners making way, it will be hard for Ghotbi to drive the team to a top 10 showing.
Key Arrivals: Alex Brosque (Sydney FC), Naohiro Takahara (Suwon Blue Wings), Daigo Kobayashi (Iraklis), Taisuke Muramatsu (Shonan Bellmare)
Key Departures: Shinji Okazaki (VfB Stuttgart), Jungo Fujimoto (Nagoya Grampus Eight), Frode Johnsen (Odd Grenland), Naoaki Aoyama (Yokohama F. Marinos), Takuya Honda (Kashima Antlers), Kazuki Hara (Urawa Red Diamonds)
Urawa Red Diamonds
Gone are the days when Urawa were paraded as the ‘Manchester United of Japan’ with some very dull campaigns of late. After a series of poor signings and perhaps a touch of complacency, the once great Reds slipped to 10th last season despite being Asian champions not four years ago.
After a succession of German coaches following the departure of now-Australia national coach, Holger Osieck, the Saitama club have asked former PSV Eindhoven and Yugoslavian defender, Željko Petrović to guide them to a more lofty position worthy of their stature and fans.
Hajime Hosogai was one of only a few shining lights for Urawa in recent years and was snapped up by German side Bayer Leverkusen, and it will be a challenge for Petrović to replace the midfielder, but with young talent popping up everywhere, eyes will be on newly drafted Shuto Kojima, who was courted by FC Tokyo and Yokohama before settling on Urawa. Said to be a midfield general, the 18-year-old could be the perfect replacement.
Key Arrivals: Kazuki Hara (Shimizu S-Pulse), Matthew Spiranovic (FC Nurnberg), Marcio Richardes (Albirex Niigata), Mazola (Sao Paolo – loan), Jun Aoyama (Tokushima Vortis), Mitsuru Nagata (Albirex Niigata), Shuto Kojima (drafted from Maebashi Ikuei High School)
Key Departures: Hajime Hosogai (Bayer Leverkusen), Wilfred Sanou (FC Koln – loan return), Robson Ponte (released), Ryota Tsuzuki (retired)
Perhaps the most intriguing team from the bottom half of the table, Vegalta have surprised many over the past few years, including with a memorable cup run in 2009 as they were promoted from the J2. The second season is always the hardest for new clubs, but the Sendai side are going through the right motions.
Signing former Kashima legend Marquinhos on a free transfer as well as already having the likes of Ryang Yong-Gi on the books, Vegalta look well placed to keep themselves up and maybe even go a bit further than last time. With no major losses, it is all systems go for the Miyagi boys.
Key Arrivals: Marquinhos (Kashima Antlers), Cho Byung-Kuk (Seongnam Illwha Chunma), Makoto Kakuda (Kyoto Sanga), Toshihiro Matsushita (FC Tokyo)
Key departures: Naoki Chiba, Tomoyuki Hirase (retired), Atsushi Nagai (released)
About as close as Japan get to a yo-yo club, Kofu have been up and down in the last five years or so and will be hoping to make this season a fruitful one.
Having secured promotion last season, Japanese clubs have a handy knack of carrying that form over to the next campaign and securing a half decent position, and for the Yamanashi representatives, that will be the aim.
After undergoing a significant restructuring in 2002, Kofu have found some success, but little consistency. However, it is likely the promotion effect will help them on their way this season.
Key arrivals: Daisuke Ichikawa, Teruyoshi Ito (Shimizu S-Pulse), Tomoya Uchida (Omiya Ardija), Genki Nagasato (Avispa Fukuoka), Teruaki Kobayashi, Daisuke Tomita (Vissel Kobe), Rudnei (Avaí)
Key departures: Daisuke Matsushita (retired), Yuki Toma (released), Michitaka Akimoto (Kyoto Sanga)
It is a miracle that Kobe are still in the J.League after two seasons of narrowly beating the drop. Only two points separated the Hyogo team from capital club FC Tokyo, and it was thanks to some very unlikely end of season form, culminating in a 4-0 victory over Urawa, that Kobe stayed in the division.
And luck seems to be staying on their side as they have maintained most of their squad, only adding to it hoping to improve their fortunes.
Rogerinho highlights the additions, but after flattering to deceive in the United Arab Emirates, Kobe fans will be worried that the Brazilian might not bring the zeal the team need. Yet again it will be left to the likes of 2010 World Cup Japanese squad member Yoshito Okubo to lead the line in the vain hope of keeping the team alive.
Key Arrivals: Rogerinho (Al Wasa)
Key Departures: Shusuke Tsubouchi (Omiya Ardija), Daisuke Tomita, Teruaki Kobayashi (Ventforet Kofu), Yutaro Takahashi (Cerezo Osaka)
Yokohama F. Marinos
Yokohama are yet another team seeking the return of their glory days. With the comeback of prodigal son Shunsuke Nakamura three years ago, the crowds have been flocking back to encourage the growth of the Kanagawa-based side.
With largely indifferent placings since their 2004 league win, Marinos have been looking for something to kick-start their charge back to the days of old and to start pushing for those all important continental competition spots.
The addition of Naoaki Aoyama and Hiroyuki Taniguchi will certainly help their ambitions, and it is about time that Yokohama got back to their challenging best.
Key Arrivals: Masashi Oguro (Tokyo Verdy), Naoaki Aoyama (Shimizu S-Pulse), Hiroyuki Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Yuzo Kobayashi (Jubilo Iwata)
Key Departures: Yusuke Tanaka, Koji Yamase (Kawasaki Frontale), Daisuke Sakata (Aris Thessaloniki) Norihisa Shimizu (Avispa Fukuoka)