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Tokyo, Antlers hoping to climb ladder

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

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.

FC TOKYO

Last season: 10th

Tokyo’s 10th-place finish last season was acceptable given that the club was still feeling its way back into the top flight following promotion, but after making a couple of big moves in the transfer market, this year’s target will be significantly higher.

The signing of Olympic team midfielder Keigo Higashi from Omiya Ardija and half-season loan for striker Tadanari Lee from Southampton has immediately ratcheted up expectations at the capital city club, and given the quality already on the books, who is to say that talk of the title is unjustified?

Tokyo boasts several players on the fringes of the national team, with experience, variety and depth running right throughout the squad. Lee should add a cutting edge that was missing at times last season, while Higashi will bring dynamism to a team that has long relied on the cerebral but slow-motion playmaking talents of the now-departed Yohei Kajiyama.

Tokyo has been here before, of course, looking like strong contenders for the 2010 title only to end that season in relegation.

This time, however, at least a place in the top three looks a real possibility.

KASHIMA ANTLERS

Last season: 11th

Last season was a difficult one for Kashima under the first-year stewardship of manager Jorginho, but performances picked up over the second half of the campaign enough to offer hope for the future.

Now, with Jorginho back in Brazil after quitting for family reasons, Antlers find themselves back at square one. Replacement Toninho Cerezo is a familiar face having led the team from 2000-05, but much has changed since he left the J. League and the squad he inherits is one undergoing transition.

Antlers showed flashes of real potential last season, with Yuya Osako and Dutra striking up a dangerous partnership in attack and Gaku Shibasaki emerging as a classy midfield leader. Dutra’s departure to Belgium is a blow, but replacement Davi is a proven performer and one who could — if he buys into the team concept — be a worthy successor to the great Kashima strikers of the past.

Expecting the team to win consistently from the outset might be too much to ask, and given the circumstances it would be little surprise to see a repeat of last season’s slow start.

Given Kashima’s pedigree, however, anything is possible.

JUBILO IWATA

Last season: 12th

Jubilo’s 12th-place finish makes it difficult to believe that the three-time champions were in title contention with just over two months of last season left to play, but six defeats in their final eight matches meant staving off relegation became the eventual priority.

Such a meltdown was perplexing given the Shizuoka side’s impressive performances for the majority of the campaign, and manager Hitoshi Morishita will be hoping normal service is resumed once the new season gets under way.

Jubilo’s cause has certainly been helped by the arrival of national team defender Masahiko Inoha, who brings further quality to a team featuring several exciting young talents complemented by the experience and class of Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano.

The team will also be boosted by the return of forward Hidetaka Kanazono, who missed practically all of last season through injury, although departed Brazilian Rodrigo Souto could yet be missed in midfield.

Question marks remain after last season’s late collapse, but there is no reason why Jubilo cannot achieve something this year.

OMIYA ARDIJA

Last season: 13th

Omiya has long craved a place among the first division’s upper echelons, but things have never quite worked out despite a history of ambitious signings.

If the late-season form that pulled the Saitama side clear of relegation last year is anything to go by, however, a first-ever top-half finish certainly seems achievable.

Omiya put together an unbeaten run of 11 games to escape the drop, offering hope for the new campaign with Slovenian manager Zdenko Verdenik now firmly established after taking over from Jun Suzuki last summer.

Omiya’s survival bid was greatly helped by the arrival of two of Verdenik’s countrymen — strikers Zlatan Ljubijankic and Milivoje Novakovic — and the fact that both remain for the new season means the team should manage to score more than last year’s paltry 38 goals.

Outgoing midfielder Keigo Higashi’s energy will be missed, but last year’s big signing Cho Young Cheol still has much to give, and Verdenik presides over a nicely weighted squad more than capable of making an impact.

It has been said before, but Omiya could be this year’s dark horse.

CEREZO OSAKA

Last season: 14th

It was somewhat inevitable that Cerezo’s season would fizzle out after star players Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kim Bo Kyung left for Europe last summer, but there should still have been enough talent remaining to prevent the club from almost sliding into the second division.

Cerezo failed to win any of their final six games to finish just three points off the drop zone, bringing a chaotic end to a campaign that saw manager Levir Culpi return to replace Sergio Soares in August just eight months after leaving the club.

The Olympics hit Cerezo particularly hard, with practically the entire first-choice midfield missing games to play in London, but Fabio Simplicio did well after arriving from Roma in the summer and should again be a major presence.

Yoichiro Kakitani was another success story in attack, and with Toru Araiba among a decent-looking crop of signings, Cerezo should have enough quality to avoid a repeat of last year’s scare.

Significant progress, however, looks unlikely.

ALBIREX NIIGATA

Last season: 15th

Albirex will be happy just to start the new campaign in the first division after escaping relegation on the final day last season, but after a host of personnel changes over the winter, the Hokuriku club cannot afford to relax just yet.

Having scored the second-least goals in the division (29) but tying champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima for second-fewest conceded (34), Albirex’s strengths and weaknesses last year were not hard to identify.

This year’s prospects have been immediately undermined by the departure of first-choice center-backs Daisuke Suzuki and Naoki Ishikawa, but striker Tatsuya Tanaka will be hoping to ease the team’s problems at the other end after joining from Urawa Reds.

For all of Niigata’s extremes in attack and defense, however, it is in midfield where the club’s fortunes could be decided. Playmaker Michael has left after pulling the strings for the past three seasons, and it remains to be seen how replacement Leo Silva will adapt.

Anything less than a smooth start from him, and Albirex could be in trouble.

VENTFORET KOFU

Last season: J2 champion

Ventforet bounced back from relegation in 2011 to win J2 in some style last year, but the squad that begins the new top-flight season will bear little resemblance to the one that clinched promotion.

Manager Hiroshi Jofuku has brought in a wealth of first-division experience, with midfielder Naotake Hanyu, defender Naoaki Aoyama and winger Koki Mizuno among those arriving.

For all the talent coming in, however, it is the departure of one man that could have the biggest impact. Brazilian striker Davi scored 32 of Ventforet’s 63 goals last season before leaving for Kashima Antlers, and his replacements, Hugo and Lenny, are unknown quantities.

Prolific goalscorers have been key to promoted sides’ fortunes in recent years, with Yohei Toyoda playing a big part in Sagan Tosu’s survival last season and Mike Havenaar almost keeping Ventforet in the division in 2011.

But if the new signings gel sufficiently to compensate for Davi’s exit, Kofu should have enough quality to beat the drop.

SHONAN BELLMARE

Last season: second in J2

Bellmare return to the top flight for the first time since being swiftly and brutally relegated in 2010, but there is little to suggest the Kanagawa club will have it any easier this time round.

A mere 16 points and a minus-51 goal difference was all Shonan could muster in its last foray into the first division, although few veterans of that campaign are still around to bear the scars. Instead manager Cho Kwi Jae leads a squad light in first-division experience and short of genuine quality back into J1, where survival will be the sole objective.

Bellmare took second place in an extremely tight promotion race last season, leading J2 in goals scored with 66 despite no one player managing to bag any more than nine. Bolivian striker Edvaldo has arrived from the Thai League to try to provide more of a cutting edge, although how he copes with the step up in quality remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, reinforcements have been drawn largely from the second division, with a shortage of experienced heads suggesting Cho could have his work cut out for him.

A steep learning curve awaits.

OITA TRINITA

Last season: sixth in J2 (playoff winners)

Oita enters new territory as the lowest-ranked team ever to take its place in J1, and the fortunes of other promoted clubs in recent seasons suggest the Kyushu side could be on a hiding to nothing.

Trinita came through the first-ever J2 promotion playoffs to return to the top flight after an absence of three years, but the specter of Consadole Sapporo’s record-fast relegation last season will loom large in the minds of a squad short on first-division experience.

New arrivals such as Kazumichi Takagi, Yuki Fukuya and Shinji Tsujio should inject a dose of street smarts, however, and striker Yasuhito Morishima — scorer of all four goals in his side’s 4-0 playoff semifinal win over Kyoto Sanga — could prove a handful for opposition defenses.

But elsewhere there is little to suggest that Oita can avoid a season of struggle, and getting early points on the board will be essential if the Kyushu team is to avoid dropping straight back down.

Stranger things have happened, but in all likelihood it should be a difficult year.