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Cerezo looking to end Sanfrecce stranglehold

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-ranking teams competing in the first division are listed.

SANFRECCE HIROSHIMA
Last season:champions

Sanfrecce began last season with something of a question mark over their ability to defend their J. League title, but by the end Hajime Moriyasu’s side had nothing left to prove after carrying off the silverware for a second year running.

Sanfrecce dug in when the going got tough and took advantage of Yokohama F. Marinos’ late meltdown to claim the title, but their success was down to so much more than just their rivals’ failings.

Hisato Sato, Yojiro Takahagi and Toshihiro Aoyama were again outstanding, Moriyasu played his cards well — teenage substitute Gakuto Notsuda’s timely goals were a prime example — and there was a mental resolve about Sanfrecce that set them apart from the rest.

That was perhaps unsurprising given that defender Ryota Moriwaki was the only player to leave after the 2012 season, and departures have again been kept to a minimum with only goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa jumping ship to Urawa Reds.

Replacement Takuto Hayashi is not of the same caliber, but midfielder Yoshifumi Kashiwa is a useful addition, and Moriyasu will not want to tinker too much with a formula that has brought so much success.

Sanfrecce may or may not make it a hat trick of titles, but at least no one will underestimate them now.

YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS

Last season: second

Second place last season was a commendable achievement for Marinos in the cold light of day, but no one at the club will be thinking that way having blown a four-point lead with two games remaining.

Serious questions remain over Yokohama’s temperament after such a timid collapse, and the fact that so many key players are 35 or over means it is legitimate to wonder whether the current team will ever get as good a chance again.

The departure of 37-year-old striker Marquinhos will nonetheless be felt even if his goals did dry up toward the end of last year, but Marinos have recruited sensibly over the offseason. Midfielder Jungo Fujimoto is a top-class J. League talent whose failure to make the international grade should not be held against him, while defender Takumi Shimohira and striker Sho Ito are also interesting additions.

In truth, Marinos’ title challenge last year came as something of a surprise, but it was nothing if not deserved. Shunsuke Nakamura was outstanding in a way that had previously eluded him since returning from Europe four years ago, and if he and defender Yuji Nakazawa can continue to roll back the years, Marinos could go one better this season.

Only time will tell.

KAWASAKI FRONTALE

Last season: third

Frontale did tremendously well to finish third last year, putting together a late run to burst out of midtable and clinch a spot in the Asian Champions League on the final day of the season.

Success was unexpected for a team still readjusting to the end of its late-’00s heyday, but the acquisition of striker Yoshito Okubo proved to be a masterstroke with the veteran going on to win the Golden Boot with 26 goals.

Kengo Nakamura and Renato were also outstanding, but manager Yahiro Kazama deserves huge credit for the way he turned Frontale’s season around after being bottom of the table early on in the campaign.

Building on that success, however, or even matching it, will be a tall order. Yasuhito Morishima, Jun Kanakubo and Paulinho are all decent signings, but the demands of the ACL will take their toll and Frontale’s squad does not look especially deep.

Young talent such as Ryota Oshima offers hope for the future, but Frontale may have to be content with a place just below the leading pack for now.

CEREZO OSAKA

Last season: fourth

Cerezo were already looking like serious candidates for the 2014 title at the turn of the year, but the subsequent arrival of 2010 World Cup Golden Ball-winner Diego Forlan undoubtedly puts them among the favorites.

Forlan, at 34 but still set to play for Uruguay at the World Cup this summer, is arguably the highest-profile player to join a J. League club in more than a decade, and should tear through the competition if he can stay fit and healthy.

Add Forlan and new Serbian defender Gojko Kacar to a squad that already contains Japan internationals Hotaru Yamaguchi, Yoichiro Kakitani and Takahiro Ogihara, plus 2013 young player of the year Takumi Minamino, and it is clear that Cerezo have the potential to win the title for the first time in their history.

Midseason transfers to Europe have derailed the club in the past and could do so again, and the departure of longtime manager Levir Culpi — presumably this time for good — could yet have a destabilizing effect, especially with expectations sky-high.

Replacement Ranko Popovic will be familiar with his new players, however, and the former FC Tokyo manager has brought midfielder Ariajasuru Hasegawa with him to add even more quality to the side.

There is always the possibility that things might not work out, but Cerezo look very strong contenders for the title.

KASHIMA ANTLERS

Last season: fifth

Fifth place last season does not tell the full story of Kashima’s campaign, with returning manager Toninho Cerezo leading the club to a genuine title challenge only a year after limping over the line in 11th.

Cerezo did well to squeeze the most out of Kashima’s many veterans while also phasing in youngsters such as Shoma Doi and Takahide Umebachi, although it remains to be seen how far the team’s evolution can continue with star striker Yuya Osako leaving for Germany and few new faces arriving over the offseason.

Osako will be sorely missed after scoring 19 league goals last season, finally looking like the player he was always tipped to become after flattering to deceive in his first few years as a pro.

Midfielder Luis Alberto arrives from Brazil to challenge captain Mitsuo Ogasawara for a place in the side, but with stalwarts Daiki Iwamasa and Juninho leaving the club over the offseason, Kashima’s overall squad looks weaker than it did last season.

Of course there is still plenty of quality at Cerezo’s disposal, but it is difficult to argue that Antlers are currently at the same level as their title rivals.

They have proved the doubters wrong before, but cup success may be Kashima’s best chance.

URAWA REDS

Last season: sixth

Urawa’s sixth-place finish last year was a poor return for a team that was firmly in title contention until the third-last game of the season, but the team’s feeble end to the campaign shone a harsh light on its failings.

Heavy defeats to Kawasaki Frontale, Sagan Tosu and Cerezo Osaka with the championship on the line betrayed a team lacking in mental resolve, and it will require a far tougher attitude if Reds are to claim the title this year.

The acquisition of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa — a two-time champion with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and a fierce competitor — will help on that front, and the arrival of forward Tadanari Lee from Southampton gives Urawa an extra dose of quality in attack.

Takuya Aoki should reinforce what was already a solid midfield after joining from Omiya Ardija, and the squad certainly has the strength in depth to go all the way.

Goals were not hard to come by last season with a league high of 66, but Reds looked short of craft and guile at times and more can be expected of creative talents like Genki Haraguchi and Yosuke Kashiwagi.

If they can pull their weight and the team can develop a winning mentality, Urawa can again challenge for the title.

ALBIREX NIIGATA

Last season: seventh

Albirex took a giant step forward last season having ended the previous campaign a whisker away from relegation, with the club winning its final five games of 2013 to secure a very creditable seventh-place finish.

Kengo Kawamata was the undoubted star of Niigata’s campaign, scoring 23 goals and making the J. League team of the season after returning to the club from a year’s loan at J2 side Fagiano Okayama. There is no guarantee that Kawamata can repeat the trick this season, but with midfielder Leo Silva still around to create the chances, anything is possible.

Arrivals have been low-key, but perhaps more important is the fact that departures have been kept to a minimum. Goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi will be missed after joining Gamba Osaka, but after a steady outgoing of talent in recent years, Kawamata and Silva’s continued presence will be a welcome sight.

Building on last season’s achievements, however, could be difficult. The feeling persists that Albirex performed above themselves, and making the step to title contenders may be a bridge too far.

A midtable finish looks about right.

FC TOKYO

Last season: eighth

Tokyo will be hoping for more satisfaction this year than in 2013, when the capital-city club began the season with realistic designs on the title but ended it with the mediocrity of an eighth-place finish.

Striker Kazuma Watanabe perhaps best summed up Tokyo’s season by leading the scoring charts with 15 goals after 20 rounds, only to manage just two more all year and end the campaign a forgotten man.

The offseason replacement of manager Ranko Popovic with Italian Massimo Ficcadenti means Tokyo must start again from scratch, and the new man’s absence of prior J. League experience further disrupts the rhythm.

Popovic has taken midfielder Ariajasuru Hasegawa with him to Cerezo Osaka and talismanic forward Lucas has retired, but striker Edu — formerly of Germany’s Schalke — is a quality signing, while fellow Brazilian Mateus has arrived to help out in defense.

With stalwarts such as defenders Masato Morishige and Yuhei Tokunaga and midfielder Hideto Takahashi still around to lead the charge, Ficcadenti takes over a side with enough quality to challenge for the title.

Whether he can get everything running smoothly from the outset is the big question.

SHIMIZU S-PULSE

Last season: ninth

Shimizu’s transfer policy in recent years has had something of a chaotic, throw-everything-and-hope-something-sticks feel to it, but a mix of old and new faces could see the Shizuoka side spring a surprise this season.

S-Pulse’s revolving door of personnel meant the return of former players Genki Omae and Takuya Honda after only a short time away went largely unnoticed last year, but both could be key figures in what on paper looks like a formidable attacking unit.

With Omae, Toshiyuki Takagi and younger brother Yoshiaki Takagi — newly arrived from Utrecht — playing behind former Omiya Ardija striker Milivoje Novakovic, and Honda and Taisuke Muramatsu patrolling the midfield, S-Pulse should manage more than the 48 goals they scored last season.

A defense that conceded 57 will also have to shape up, however, and new 188-cm Canadian-Croatian signing Dejan Jakovic will at least add height to the backline.

Factor in talents like forward Hideki Ishige and defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin, and S-Pulse clearly have the potential to challenge for an Asian Champions League place.

Actually going out and doing so is another matter.