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J. League big guns set sights on Reysol’s crown

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

The following is the second of a two-part preview for the upcoming J. League season. Team-by-team previews of the nine highest-ranked teams competing in the first division are listed.

KASHIWA REYSOL

Last season: champion

After last season’s outstanding championship-winning achievement, all eyes will be on Hitachi Stadium to see what Kashiwa can do for an encore.

The Chiba side became the first team in J. League history to win the second- and first-division titles in successive seasons, but with expectations sky-high and the added workload of Asian Champions League fixtures to contend with, sustaining that momentum over the coming season will be a very tall order indeed.

Still, if anyone can juggle his resources effectively it is Kashiwa manager Nelsinho, and the Brazilian has been busy tweaking his squad over the winter break with a few low-key but canny signings.

Former Tochigi SC striker Ricardo Lobo should take much of the goal-scoring burden away from midfield leader Leandro Domingues, while utility man Daisuke Nasu gives the manager yet another reliable, versatile piece to work with.

Whether that is enough to challenge on all fronts remains to be seen, but there is no reason why Reysol should not be able to have a good crack at defending their J. League title. They may fall short, but it certainly won’t be without a fight.

NAGOYA GRAMPUS

Last season: second

The 2010 champions were very quiet in the winter transfer market, but given the way they pushed Kashiwa Reysol all the way for the title last season, manager Dragan Stojkovic is entitled to feel satisfied with his lot.

The Serbian was rightly aggrieved at missing out on the championship despite winning the last six games of the season, but with experience and talent running throughout the entire squad, Nagoya surely starts the new campaign in pole position.

Grampus looked even stronger in 2011 than they did in winning the title the year before, with Jungo Fujimoto capping his debut season at the club with an appearance in the J. League team of the year, speedster Kensuke Nagai impressing and young midfielder Ryota Isomura catching the eye of national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni.

This year’s new arrivals, Daniel and Yosuke Ishibitsu, are unlikely to strengthen the first XI, but their presence adds further depth to the most formidable squad in the league.

The advancing age of some players may cause slight cause for concern, but in truth Nagoya’s weaknesses are far too few to offer any real comfort to their rivals.

Anything other than the title would be a surprise.

GAMBA OSAKA

Last season: third

A new era begins at Gamba without former manager Akira Nishino, who left after a decade in charge that yielded one J. League championship, two Emperor’s Cups, one Nabisco Cup and one Asian Champions League title.

Nishino shaped Gamba into a club like no other in the J. League, scoring goals by the truckload yet conceding them with such carefree abandon that the first clean sheet of last season did not arrive until August.

New manager Jose Carlos Serrao’s attempts to instill some defensive fortitude will certainly be helped by the arrival of national team stalwart Yasuyuki Konno from FC Tokyo. Konno has all the tools to make his time at Gamba the defining period of his career, but with the departure of Satoshi Yamaguchi and Kazumichi Takagi whittling down options at the back, he will need to settle in quickly.

Striker Lee Keun Ho and midfielder Hideo Hashimoto will also be missed, and although new faces such as Paulinho and Lee Seung Yeoul have the potential to do well, there is much uncertainty surrounding Gamba going into the new season.

If everything clicks then another title challenge is in the cards. If it doesn’t, things could get messy.

VEGALTA SENDAI

Last season: fourth

Last season’s fourth-place finish — Vegalta’s best ever — would have been tremendous even under normal circumstances, but given the impact of the March 11 disasters, the achievement was truly remarkable.

Vegalta went unbeaten in their opening 12 games despite spending much of the earthquake-enforced break in exile, and although that momentum inevitably wore off, their late-season spurt — winning seven of their final 11 games to pip Yokohama F. Marinos for fourth place — was just as impressive.

Whether Vegalta can maintain those standards remains to be seen. Defender Cho Byung Kuk’s move to Jubilo Iwata breaks up a back line that let in a league-lowest 25 goals, but he has been replaced by experience in the shape of Cerezo Osaka’s Taikai Uemoto.

Scoring at the other end was far more of a problem, with even relegated Ventforet Kofu notching more than Vegalta’s paltry 39, and Gamba Osaka managing double that despite finishing only one place higher in third.

If new Brazilian striker Wilson can provide the remedy, Vegalta should again thrive. A repeat of last year’s heroics, however, may be asking too much.

YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS

Last season: fifth

Last season’s fifth-place finish was Marinos’ highest since winning the title in 2004, and a run to the Emperor’s Cup semifinals reinforced the impression that the Yokohama giant was finally beginning to rouse itself from an extended slumber.

With the club firing manager Kazushi Kimura at the end of the campaign, however, the three-time champions run the risk of setting that good work back to zero.

Kimura built Marinos into a solid if unspectacular unit that was firmly in the title race for most of the season, but the former national team striker seems to have paid the price for a late collapse that saw his team overhauled by Vegalta Sendai for fourth place.

There is little to suggest Marinos will be more adventurous this time around, and it will be asking a lot of returning 35-year-old striker Marquinhos to help the club better last season’s tally of 46 goals with Kazuma Watanabe now departed for FC Tokyo.

Teenage attacker Yuji Ono should liven things up if he gets more playing time, though, and with steady hands such as Shunsuke Nakamura, Shingo Hyodo and Yuji Nakazawa still around, another positive campaign is certainly possible.

An improvement on last year, however, looks unlikely.

KASHIMA ANTLERS

Last season: sixth

Last season was a difficult one for the J. League’s most successful club, beginning with an enforced life on the road due to earthquake damage to Kashima Stadium and ending with sixth place and the departure of talismanic manager Oswaldo Oliveira.

The early-season upheaval unquestionably played a part in Kashima’s disappointing campaign, but in truth, failure to refresh a side that had grown old together was the Ibaraki club’s ultimate undoing.

With Oliveira now gone after five trophy-laden years, the rebuilding task falls to Jorginho, a former Kashima player and a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994. Jorginho has management pedigree having served as an assistant to Dunga during Brazil’s 2010 World Cup campaign, but the J. League has changed in his absence and he will have to adapt quickly if Kashima is to challenge for honors this season.

Veteran striker Juninho is a clever addition, but the focus is likely to be on youth, with midfielder Gaku Shibasaki and Japan Under-23 captain Kazuya Yamamura among those hoping to make an impression.

It should be noted that Antlers still managed to win the Nabisco Cup last season, and there is nothing to say they won’t be in the title reckoning this year. A season of transition, however, is the more likely scenario.

SANFRECCE HIROSHIMA

Last season: seventh

Sanfrecce have made themselves comfortable in the first division since bouncing back from relegation in 2008, but the departure of manager Mihailo Petrovic and striker Tadanari Lee throws a cloud over the new season.

Petrovic, who had been at Sanfrecce since summer 2006, had a huge influence on the team, and it is far from clear whether former player Hajime Moriyasu will be able to work the same magic despite his legendary status at the club.

Lee’s departure to Southampton will also be felt, but fellow striker Hisato Sato is still around to bang in the goals and Naoki Ishihara should also be able to contribute after joining from Omiya Ardija.

Defender Kazuhiko Chiba is another solid arrival, but Sanfrecce still look a little lacking in genuine quality, especially after letting veteran Georgian David Mujiri go after one productive season.

The coming campaign looks to be something of a transitionary one for Hiroshima, then, although the danger of slipping back into the mire also cannot be discounted if things do not go according to plan.

A third consecutive seventh-place finish might be too much to ask, but Sanfrecce should be safe enough.

JUBILO IWATA

Last season: eighth

The emergence of several talented young players helped Jubilo thrive last season, and after retaining the services of star men Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano over the winter, the Shizuoka club can look to the new campaign with renewed optimism.

Hidetaka Kanazono, Hiroki Yamada, Kosuke Yamamoto and Ryohei Yamazaki all played their part in leading Iwata to its highest league position since 2005, and with national team regulars Maeda and Komano missing out on moves to Europe, new manager Hitoshi Morishita inherits a nice blend of youth and experience.

Former Vegalta Sendai defender Cho Byung Kuk is a worthy replacement for the departed Daisuke Nasu, while Mitsuru Chiyotanda’s arrival from Nagoya Grampus provides further options at the back.

Such upheaval in defense means Jubilo will have to get on the same wavelength quickly, however, and the managerial change — with Morishita taking over from Masaaki Yanagishita — complicates matters further.

But Jubilo’s future looks brighter than it has done for some time. If everything holds together, improvement should follow.

VISSEL KOBE

Last season: ninth

Vissel’s ambition to be a serious contender has never been in question over the years, but after a host of impressive offseason signings, could the Kansai club finally be on the verge of a breakthrough?

The quality of the new arrivals certainly suggests so. Takuya Nozawa, Yuzo Tashiro and Masahiko Inoha all know what winning is about after lifting the championship on numerous occasions with Kashima Antlers, while former internationals Hideo Hashimoto and Kazumichi Takagi also have pedigree from their time at Gamba Osaka.

Add in the continued presence of striker Yoshito Okubo, and the fact that last season’s ninth-place finish was the club’s best ever, and suddenly Vissel’s season looks like being a very intriguing one indeed.

Masahiro Wada’s side will need to score more than the 44 goals it managed last term if progress is to be made, however, and although the first-choice lineup looks very competitive, the overall squad still looks somewhat thin.

Kashiwa Reysol’s unexpected title triumph last season showed that anything is possible, but to make such a leap might be slightly beyond Vissel for now. An improved league position and a decent cup run, however, are there for the taking.