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.
Last season: champions
There is no question that Sanfrecce deserved their first-ever title last year, but the coming season will determine whether it was the start of a something bigger or simply a one-off, perfect storm of a triumph.
Sanfrecce outlasted Vegalta Sendai to seal the championship on the next-to-last weekend of the season, claiming their reward for an outstanding campaign led by player of the year Hisato Sato and ably backed by the likes of forward Yojiro Takahagi, midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama and defender Hiroki Mizumoto.
Sanfrecce’s biggest coup over the winter has been to keep hold of last year’s heroes rather than attract new faces, and although defender Ryota Moriwaki has left for Urawa Reds, manager Hajime Moriyasu leads a virtually unchanged squad into the 2013 season.
Whether that will be enough to cope with the demands of a title defense remains to be seen. Sanfrecce will surely face a stronger challenger from the league’s traditional heavyweights this time around, while participation in the Asian Champions League will also take its toll.
Lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but Sanfrecce should at least be competitive.
Last season: second
Vegalta did exceptionally well to take their title bid all the way to the penultimate weekend of last season, but after missing out on the prize, the challenge now is to consolidate themselves among the division’s elite.
That should be an achievable task based on the evidence of last year, when Vegalta grabbed an early lead and held it for most of the season until Sanfrecce Hiroshima finally managed to wrest control and win the championship.
The fact that few players have left Sendai means manager Makoto Teguramori maintains the nucleus of a team that has been steadily improving over the past few years, and Naoki Ishikawa, Heberty and Hayato Sasaki are useful additions to the group.
There remains a slight suspicion that Vegalta’s bubble could yet burst, however, and taking three points from their final five games last season suggested a weakness that participation in this year’s Asian Champions League may exploit.
Such pessimism could well turn out to be unfounded, and Vegalta certainly have the potential to thrive again this year. Another serious tilt at the title, however, looks unlikely.
Last season: third
Urawa shook off years of underachievement to enjoy a rare positive campaign last season, and after making a string of impressive signings over the winter, the 2006 champions can again harbor realistic ambitions of winning the title.
Reds’ third-place finish was not pretty, but manager Mihailo Petrovic did a fine job in turning around a club that had been on a downward spiral ever since winning the Asian Champions League in 2007. Home form was particularly bad over the second half of last season, but after strengthening his squad in every department, Petrovic should be better equipped to deal with the campaign ahead.
Striker Shinzo Koroki, defender Ryota Moriwaki, midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi and utility man Daisuke Nasu all bring experience and quality, while defender Tomoaki Makino’s permanent switch after a yearlong loan from Cologne was a crucial piece of business.
Urawa will need to find the imagination that was sorely lacking last season, however, and pressure will be another factor with supporters now expectant of silverware.
Whether the team can hold its nerve remains to be seen, but Reds definitely start among the favorites.
YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS
Last season: fourth
Marinos have been building momentum with fifth- and fourth-place finishes over the past two seasons, and manager Yasuhiro Higuchi will be determined to continue that trend by breaking into the top three this time around.
Marinos also fell one short of setting a new club record with 15 straight unbeaten league games last year, but Higuchi can at least console himself with the division’s best defensive record with only 33 conceded.
Goals at the other end were harder to come by, however, and Marinos will be hoping that Yoshihito Fujita can take the burden off 36-year-old striker Marquinhos after arriving from JEF United Chiba over the winter.
Young live wire Yuji Ono has left for Belgium, but Manabu Saito and Andrew Kumagai gave a slightly creaky lineup something of a jolt last season, and the club will be hoping to see that rejuvenation process continue over the coming campaign.
Whether it takes Marinos to the next level remains to be seen.
Last season: fifth
Tosu’s fifth-place finish last season in its first-ever top-flight campaign was an outstanding achievement, but after a winter of uninspiring transfer activity, the year ahead could be a different story.
Sagan surprised everyone by making a late play for the Asian Champions League-qualifying spots, failing to secure third place only on the final day after a vibrant campaign that featured several notable victories including the scalp of eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The fact that 19-goal top scorer Yohei Toyoda is still around bodes well for the new season, but reinforcements are thin on the ground with former Avispa Fukuoka midfielder Toshiya Sueyoshi perhaps the best-known of a disparate bunch.
Sagan’s heroics last season assume a different light when taken into account that only five points separated the Kyushu side from the bottom half of the table, and the risk of second-season syndrome is clear for a team that must guard against becoming one-dimensional and predictable.
Matters at the other end of the table are more likely to concern Sagan this time around.
Last season: sixth
Kashiwa was always going to find it difficult to live up to its 2011 championship win, but despite a few bumps along the way, the Chiba side can still be happy with what it achieved last season.
A slow start amid Asian Champions League commitments derailed Reysol’s title defense before it had really begun, but things picked up as the year progressed and victory in the Emperor’s Cup final was by no means unexpected.
Manager Nelsinho seems to have learned his lesson from last season’s disappointing low-key signings, and has brought in players of proven quality to strengthen the areas that needed it most.
Brazilian Cleo has real pedigree from his time in the Chinese League and could be the prolific striker that Kashiwa has long been looking for, while dynamic midfielder Hiroyuki Taniguchi will feel he has much to prove after losing his way at Yokohama F. Marinos.
Olympic team defender Daisuke Suzuki is another classy arrival, and he joins a squad led by Leandro Domingues that has title-winning experience, proven ability and hunger for more success.
ACL involvement could again hinder Reysol’s chances, but another serious title challenge is a strong possibility.
Last season: seventh
Last season was an unhappy affair for the 2010 champions, with a title challenge always out of reach and a series of dispiriting defeats souring the mood on the way to a seventh-place finish.
It would have come as little surprise had manager Dragan Stojkovic decided to walk away at the end of a campaign that included heavy losses to Albirex Niigata and Gamba Osaka as well as a shock reverse at Consadole Sapporo, but instead the Serbian returns to lead his wounded troops into the new season.
For the first time since Stojkovic took charge five years ago, however, Nagoya no longer feels like a team on the rise. New arrivals have been underwhelming, while key players Kensuke Nagai and Mu Kanazaki have left for Europe.
Of course there is still plenty of talent at Stojkovic’s disposal, with Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Danilson Cordoba and Jungo Fujimoto among the best players in the league, Josh Kennedy returning to fitness after injury troubles last year, and Kisho Yano adding options up front after joining from Albirex.
But do Grampus have what it takes to reclaim the title? The odds are against it.
Last season: eighth
Expectations were not high for Frontale going into last season, but despite the upheaval of an early managerial change with Naoki Soma making way for Yahiro Kazama after only five games, the Kanagawa club acquitted itself reasonably well on the way to an eighth-place finish.
Now that Kazama has settled in, and with a handful of interesting signings joining over the winter, Frontale can look to the new campaign with cautious optimism.
Forward Yoshito Okubo is the most eye-catching arrival, moving to the Kanto region for the first time after suffering relegation with Vissel Kobe last season. Okubo and Frontale do not seem an obvious fit, but if the 30-year-old can strike up an understanding with Kengo Nakamura, the results could be impressive.
Elsewhere, 189-cm Brazilian striker Patric looks capable of making an impact, while defender Sota Nakazawa has plenty of experience from his time with Gamba Osaka.
Frontale might not get many pulses racing, but if everything goes according to plan, another midtable finish looks achievable.
Last season: ninth
A rapid turnover of players means Shimizu has undergone several transformations over the past few years alone, and manager Afshin Ghotbi again presides over a much-changed squad heading into the new campaign.
S-Pulse did extremely well to challenge for the title for a good portion of last season while also reaching the Nabisco Cup final, but the departure of attacking dynamo Genki Omae to Fortuna Dusseldorf complicates efforts to build on those achievements.
Ghotbi has some of the best young talent in the country at his disposal, but losing the experience of Shinji Ono, Alex Brosque and Naohiro Takahara leaves a void that the manager will hope Brazilian striker Bare can help fill after his return to the J. League from the Middle East.
Calvin Jong-a-Pin also emerged as a strong leader last season, and with the likes of Toshiyuki Takagi, Hideki Ishige and Taisuke Muramatsu in the ranks, S-Pulse certainly have the potential to make an impact.
With so many changes, however, consistency could be elusive.