The following is the first of a two-part preview for the upcoming J. League season. Team-by-team previews of the nine lowest-ranked teams competing in the first division are listed.
Last season: 10th
S-Pulse lurched wildly from one extreme to the other last season, but given that incoming manager Afshin Ghotbi was handed practically an entirely new team to work with, that hardly constituted a surprise.
There were major teething problems along the way — not least three consecutive 4-0 defeats over the summer — but Ghotbi gradually began to stamp his identity on his side, and a number of imaginative signings helped his cause.
Former Arsenal man Fredrik Ljungberg was the highest-profile arrival even if he has since departed, but 25-year-old defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin was a member of the Netherlands’ Beijing Olympic squad and it will be interesting to see what he can do now that he has acclimatized to the J. League.
Transfer activity was quiet over the winter, with Ljungberg and defenders Eddy Bosnar and Kosuke Ota the biggest departures and Yutaka Yoshida arriving from Ventforet Kofu, but Ghotbi will have seen flashes of potential in the squad he already has.
Youngsters Genki Omae and Toshiyuki Takagi impressed alongside old hands Shinji Ono and Naohiro Takahara, and the manager will again be looking to achieve the ideal blend of youth and experience.
Where it takes them is anyone’s guess, but another midtable finish sounds about right.
Last season: 11th
Last season was always going to be one of transition for Frontale, but there may be more lean times ahead before the Kanagawa club can regain its former standing.
Frontale finished in the top five in each of the five seasons leading up to the 2011 campaign, but the arrival of rookie manager Naoki Soma and the departure of several key players saw the team lose eight straight games over the summer on the way to an 11th-place finish.
With prolific striker Juninho now gone, Frontale are pinning their hopes on a trio of new Brazilians to kick-start a new era. How Jeci, Rene Santos and Renato perform is hard to predict, but at least stalwarts such as Kengo Nakamura, Junichi Inamoto and Koji Yamase will be there to guide them through.
Frontale’s winter transfer business has been unremarkable to say the least, and although striker Yu Kobayashi made his mark last season, Soma will need more young players to follow his example and step up over the coming campaign.
As unpalatable as it may sound for a perennial contender like Frontale, a top-half finish would be an achievement.
Last season: 12th
Cerezo were one of the league’s most unpredictable teams last season — beating champions-to-be Kashiwa Reysol 5-0 one week and losing 4-0 to relegated Ventforet Kofu another — but scoring goals was never a problem.
Only third-place city rivals Gamba Osaka scored more than Cerezo’s 67, and with national team star Hiroshi Kiyotake in such devastating form, it was little wonder. The 22-year-old established himself as one of Japan’s most exciting prospects on his way to a first appearance in the J. League team of the season.
Elsewhere there have been changes aplenty, with Brazilian Sergio Soares replacing countryman Levir Culpi in the manager’s seat, and important players such as Shu Kurata, Martinez and Taikai Uemoto all heading out the exit door.
New arrivals have consisted mainly of steady but unspectacular J. League stalwarts, but in reality the most important business will be done in the summer transfer market.
Whether Kiyotake decides to use that opportunity to leave for Europe — as Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui have done before him — could make or break Cerezo’s season.
Last season: 13th
Omiya’s season ventured into farcical territory last year without a single home win until late August, but some impressive offseason reinforcements offer fresh hope for the new campaign.
The arrival from Albirex Niigata of quicksilver attacker Cho Young Cheol — one of the best young talents in the J. League -is a real coup, and if the 22-year-old South Korean can quickly establish a rapport with striker Rafael, fans at Nack5 Stadium will not have to wait until the summer for something to celebrate.
Brazilian midfielder Carlinhos Paraiba also comes highly rated, and with players like Kota Ueda and Keigo Higashi already on board, Omiya certainly has the potential to fulfill its long-held desire of a first-ever top-half finish.
Manager Jun Suzuki is not universally popular among the Ardija supporters, and frustration at the club’s serial underachievement is high.
If the planets align for Omiya, though, this could be the year to break that cycle.
Last season: 14th
There is surely a limit to how many times Albirex can survive losing their best players over the winter, and after another harsh time in the transfer market, the coming season will provide a stern test of the Hokuriku club’s resilience.
Following the 2010 departures of Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata, Albirex now head into the 2012 campaign without the services of attacking inspiration Cho Young Cheol, influential left-back Gotoku Sakai and reliable defender Kazuhiko Chiba. For a club that finished last season only two places above the drop zone, it could make all the difference.
At least there have been reinforcements up front, with Shoki Hirai arriving on loan from Gamba Osaka and Kisho Yano returning from Germany, but other new recruits are inexperienced and Albirex will be hoping that Brazilian Alan Mineiro can settle in quickly alongside compatriot Michael.
Jamaican-born Japan Under-17 striker Musashi Suzuki is another interesting addition, but he is one for the future and Albirex will have to concentrate on the here and now with a good start to the season an absolute must.
Without that, they could be in real trouble.
Last season: 15th
Predictions for Urawa’s chances have proved consistently futile in recent years, with the 2006 champions somehow finding a way to defy expectations and slump even lower each season.
Yet another managerial change has brought in Mihailo Petrovic from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, with national team defender Tomoaki Makino arriving on loan from Cologne and midfielder Yuki Abe returning from Leicester City.
Petrovic will certainly bring more J. League knowhow than his namesake predecessor Zeljko Petrovic, but whether his particular brand of tactics suits a team that desperately needed to rediscover the basics last season remains to be seen.
Abe and Makino add quality to a squad that contains genuine talent and utter mediocrity in equal measures, but two big question marks remain.
First, are Ranko Despotovic and new signing Popo good enough to fill the void up front that has existed ever since Washington left the club in 2007?
And second, is the team mentally strong enough to hold it together when the going gets tough?
As always, it could go either way.
Last season: J2 champion
Last season’s stroll to the J2 title and subsequent Emperor’s Cup victory will have had Tokyo dreaming of making a Kashiwa Reysol-sized impact on the first division, and although a series of offseason changes have clouded the waters, the capital city side still looks in good shape for the campaign ahead.
The loss of captain and defensive bedrock Yasuyuki Konno is a heavy blow to absorb, but Tokyo should have more strength in depth this year with striker Kazuma Watanabe from Yokohama F. Marinos and defender Kosuke Ota from Shimizu S-Pulse among those bolstering the ranks.
They join a squad brimming with experience having stayed together following relegation in 2010, and players like Yuhei Tokunaga, Sota Hirayama and Naohiro Ishikawa will feel they have plenty to prove after dropping out of the national team picture as a result.
Evergreen Brazilian striker Lucas is still on board after coming out of retirement midway through last season, and if new manager Ranko Popovic can harness the momentum generated by promotion-winning boss Kiyoshi Okuma, anything is possible.
Last season: second in J2
Sagan finally achieved promotion last season after 13 years of trying, but the Kyushu side cannot expect a friendly welcome to the fiercely competitive top flight.
Sagan put together an excellent late run to nip in ahead of Consadole Sapporo and Tokushima Vortis for the J2 runnerup spot, with striker Yohei Toyoda finishing as the division’s top scorer on 23 goals — seven ahead of his nearest challenger.
Beijing Olympian Toyoda now has the chance to test himself against the country’s best defenses, and he will be hoping to emulate the success last season of Ventforet Kofu striker — and former Tosu player — Mike Havenaar.
The reality is that manager Yoon Jong Hwan must make the most of a limited, inexperienced squad, with ex-Yokohama F. Marinos man Kim Kun Hoan the pick of a fairly uninspiring bunch of offseason signings.
Even if Toyoda does fire, survival will be difficult.
Last season: third in J2
Consadole return to the top flight for the first time since 2008, but manager Nobuhiro Ishizaki will be aware of the dismal track record of teams coming up in the final promotion spot in recent years.
Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare both suffered chastening single seasons in the first division before dropping straight back down again, and after clinching promotion only on the final day of last year’s campaign, Consadole’s chances of bucking that trend appear slim.
Ishizaki has brought in a host of new faces to lead the survival effort, with Australian Jade North arriving from FC Tokyo, midfielder Masaki Yamamoto joining from Shimizu S-Pulse and striker Hideo Oshima looking to add goals following his move from Albirex Niigata.
They will need to come from somewhere given that Consadole scored only 49 last season — almost 20 less than the two other promoted teams — and although conceding only 32 was a more respectable achievement, withstanding first-division attacks will be a different story.
Much will depend on the new arrivals’ ability to integrate quickly.
Even still, it could be a long season.