Ardija looking to keep rising

J2 champions among teams eyeing progress in new season


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-ranking teams competing in the first division are listed.


Last season: 10th

Kashiwa was mediocrity personified on the way to a midtable finish last season, but after losing the entire spine of its team over the winter, more of the same would constitute a heroic achievement.

Strikers Masato Kudo and Cristiano — responsible for more than half of Reysol’s total 46 goals last season — have both left, joining defensive stalwarts Daisuke Suzuki and Naoya Kondo and goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno out the exit door.

Losing such a wealth of talent and experience in one fell swoop would be a heavy blow for any team to absorb, and with proven replacements thin on the ground, the 2011 champions could well be in for a struggle.

First impressions of new manager Milton Mendes at least suggest a man with the enthusiasm for the task ahead, but a slow start could soon wipe the smile from his face.

Incoming Brazilians Juliano Mineiro and Diego Oliveira will have big goalscoring shoes to fill, while fellow striker Eduardo will be looking to show what he can do after managing just one goal last season.

Captain Hidekazu Otani and the returning Junya Tanaka provide a link to Kashiwa’s glorious recent past, but the immediate future looks far from certain.


Last season: 11th

Tosu had been consistently punching above its weight ever since reaching the top flight for the first time in 2012, but the sense that the bubble would eventually burst came to pass last season.

It is a measure of how far the Kyushu club has come, however, that an 11th-place finish was considered a disappointing season. And with new manager Massimo Ficcadenti arriving from FC Tokyo and star striker Yohei Toyoda still around to lead the line, Tosu can have reasonable expectations of climbing back up the table in 2016.

Tosu’s remarkable pursuit of former Bayern Munich manager Felix Magath may have come up short, but Ficcadenti is a worthy second choice and the Italian should shore up a defense that conceded a damaging 54 goals last season.

Toyoda can be relied upon to weigh in with goals at the other end — 12 in the first stage and 16 overall last season — but he will need help from fellow forwards Kei Ikeda and Kim Min-woo, who managed just three between them all year.

Losing captain Naoyuki Fujita and midfielder Kota Mizunuma is another blow that must be overcome, but Sagan still has the quality and spirit to make an impact this season.


Last season: 12th

Another year, another disappointment for Vissel, who just cannot seem to rise above midtable no matter how many moves they make in the transfer market.

Last season’s hiring of manager Nelsinho failed to have the instant impact Vissel were hoping for, with the team making virtually no impression in either the first or second stage on the way to a 12th-place finish.

But hope springs eternal for a club that usually starts the season at least looking good on paper, and the arrival of midfielder Naoyuki Fujita from Sagan Tosu gives Nelsinho further options.

New South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu is also highly rated, and with the likes of Leandro, Kazuma Watanabe and Pedro Junior already in the ranks, Kobe has forwards capable of improving on last season’s tally of 44 goals.

Theory, however, is one thing. Vissel have finished in the top half of the table only once in their history, and going out and producing results on the pitch is the only way to change their fortunes.

Nelsinho is a talented coach with good players at his disposal. Whether they can show it this season is the question.


Last season: 13th

Ventforet had been mired in one yearlong survival battle after another going into last season, but the Yamanashi club bucked the trend with a 13th-place finish.

Ventforet ended the first stage in 12th place before going on to secure survival with room to spare, although manager Satoru Sakuma will take nothing for granted this season with a number of personnel moves clouding the waters.

Several of last season’s key players — striker Bare, left back Shohei Abe and midfielder Hokuto Shimoda — have left, but their replacements look promising. Striker Cristiano returns from Kashiwa Reysol a player transformed after scoring 14 goals last season, while new full back Gilton has J. League experience from previous stints at Kashima Antlers and Albirex Niigata.

Ventforet badly need Cristiano to maintain his goalscoring form with the club having notched only 26 in total last season — only bottom side Montedio Yamagata managed less — and a first-division field that looks strengthened by this year’s promoted teams may not grant Kofu the same mercy as last year.

Another positive season is certainly possible, but for now everything hangs in the balance.


Last season: 14th

Vegalta’s 14th-place finish last season obscures the fact that they ended the first stage in seventh, and manager Susumu Watanabe will be hoping that slide does not continue into the new campaign.

Watanabe has not been helped by the departure of defenders Jiro Kamata, Taikai Uemoto and Atsuto Tatara, and will need newcomers Yasuhiro Hiraoka and Kazuki Oiwa to slot straight into a revamped back line.

Elsewhere, the starting lineup is not expected to change a great deal. Watanabe will hope that the understanding his settled team has built up will give it a head start over rivals who are still getting used to each other, but adding a few fresh faces to the mix would hardly have hurt given Vegalta’s largely insipid performances last year.

Key players Ryang Yong-gi, Wilson and Takuya Nozawa still have plenty to offer, however, and a total of 44 goals scored and 48 conceded last year was a reasonable tally given Vegalta’s final league position.

Realistically, Sendai’s ambitions are probably limited to a top-half finish and given the squad at Watanabe’s disposal, that certainly seems an achievable target.

But a relegation dogfight is not out of the question either.


Last season: 15th

Albirex fans might have been forgiven for thinking their team had turned a corner when it finished 12th in 2014, but the perennial relegation strugglers were back to their old bad habits last year.

In fairness, Niigata ended up six points clear of relegation despite finishing only one league position above the drop zone. But there was still much to lament with the Hokuriku side conceding more goals — 58 — than anyone else in the division with the exception of relegated Shimizu S-Pulse.

New manager Tatsuma Yoshida arrives having led Kashiwa Reysol to a 10th-place finish last season, but loan returnees make up the bulk of the new signings. Yoshida will hope that Japan Under-23 players Musashi Suzuki and Ken Matsubara can ride the wave of Olympic qualification success into the J. League, but in truth the manager will be far more dependent on his Brazilian contingent.

Leo Silva, Rafael Silva and Cortez all have the quality to make the difference, and the team will take heart from the way it improved over the course of last season.

But ultimately, much will depend on the strength of the competition. The overall level of the division looks higher than last season, and if Albirex do not raise their game accordingly, this could be the year their luck finally runs out.


Last season: J2 champions

Ardija’s relegation from J1 in 2014 was a painful one given that they had led the league for much of the previous season, but the Saitama side got its house in order quick enough to bounce straight back.

Omiya started slowly but steadily built up a huge lead in J2 last season, and although the wheels started to shake as the prize got closer, Hiroki Shibuya’s side never seriously looked like missing out on promotion.

Now, having brought in a smattering of new faces, Omiya can look forward to the season ahead with cautious optimism. Slovenian winger Necj Pecnik joins after scoring 14 goals for JEF United Chiba in J2 last season, while midfielder Yuzo Iwakami picked up crucial top-flight experience with Matsumoto Yamaga.

Strikers Akihiro Ienaga and Dragan Mrdja are both proven performers who scored 30 goals between them last term, but overall the squad does not look to be at quite the same level that it was the last time Omiya was in the first division.

Shibuya must hope that last season’s momentum can survive the step up to J1, and get enough early points on the board to gain a foothold.

Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.


Last season: second in J2

Jubilo’s return to J1 after a two-year absence has not come easy, but the three-time champions look well-equipped to make it stick.

Jubilo clinched promotion at the second time of asking, edging Avispa Fukuoka for the J2 runnerup spot on goal difference on the final day of the season.

The Shizuoka side was indebted to the goals of English striker Jay Bothroyd — the league’s top scorer with 20 in 32 games — and the former Cardiff City man’s quality and experience will be crucial against first-division defenses.

Polish goalkeeper Krzysztof Kaminski was another linchpin in Jubilo’s promotion campaign, but the defense in front of him will have to shape up after conceding 43 goals last term.

Comings and goings at the club have been largely low-key, with manager Hiroshi Nanami hoping that the team that came through an extremely competitive second division last season will be strong enough to cope with the rigors of a top-flight campaign.

Jubilo are unlikely to slot seamlessly back into the first-division groove, but if Bothroyd can keep scoring, steady progress should follow.


Last season: third in J2 (qualified through playoffs)

Avispa were desperately unlucky not to overtake Jubilo Iwata for the second automatic promotion slot after a strong late run last season, but the Kyushu side held its nerve in the playoffs to secure a return to the top flight.

Avispa will not like the fact that every playoff winner since the system was introduced in 2012 has gone on to be relegated the following year, but as the only team to actually finish the regular season in third place, Fukuoka will fancy its chances of bucking the trend.

A defense that conceded only 37 goals in 42 matches last season will help, and that unit has been strengthened by the arrival of Yuki Saneto from Kawasaki Frontale and Kim Hyun-hun from JEF United Chiba.

Colombian Danilson Cordoba — a league winner with Nagoya Grampus in 2010 — adds further bite to the midfield, and there is no shortage of first-division experience throughout the squad.

But as with all promoted teams, making the step up will be a tough task. Manager Masami Ihara — Japan’s second-most-capped player ever — is certainly no fool, but his managerial experience is limited and he will be severely tested over the coming year.

This group of players should at least give him a fighting chance.