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.
Last season: champions
There could be no doubting Sanfrecce’s worth as champions last season after they claimed the overall league title and then went out and won the championship playoffs too.
Sanfrecce scored the most goals, conceded the least and racked up the J. League’s highest-ever points total for good measure. They boasted the 2015 player of the year in midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, and also the young player of the year in quicksilver striker Takuma Asano.
As Sanfrecce turn their attentions toward claiming a fourth title in five seasons, however, manager Hajime Moriyasu must deal with the departure of Brazilian forward Douglas, who made a huge contribution last year but has now left for the United Arab Emirates.
Replacement Peter Utaka does not look at quite the same level, but Moriyasu has no shortage of attacking cards to shuffle with Hisato Sato, Kosei Shibasaki, Gakuto Notsuda, Yusuke Minagawa and the excellent Asano just some of the options available.
The depth of Sanfrecce’s squad became apparent during its run to a third-place finish at the Club World Cup last December, and Moriyasu will need it with another energy-sapping Asian Champions League campaign already under way.
Gamba Osaka may look marginally stronger, but don’t be surprised if Sanfrecce defend their title.
Last season: runner-up (third in overall table)
Gamba limped into the championship playoffs only on the final day of last season, but the fact that the 2014 treble winners still ended the campaign in all three domestic finals was a testament to their character and quality.
It was no real surprise to see Gamba struggle midseason amid their Asian Champions League commitments, but finishing third in the J. League was enough to get them a ticket to the party. Once there, they almost went all the way to the title.
Now, having made a few canny offseason acquisitions, manager Kenta Hasegawa can expect his side to make a stronger push on all fronts. Brazilian striker Ademilson joins after showing glimpses of his potential for Yokohama F. Marinos last season, while midfielder Jungo Fujimoto is as experienced and cultured as they come.
Add them to a squad already containing players of the caliber of Takashi Usami, Patric, Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno, factor in the excitement of playing in the club’s brand-new 40,000-capacity Suita Stadium, and it is clear that Gamba start very much among the front-runners for the title.
If Hasegawa plays his cards right, Gamba could be unstoppable.
Last season: third (second in overall table)
Last season was as painfully familiar as ever for Urawa, leaving the J. League’s eternal bridesmaids looking to end what is now a decade-long hunt for a second league title.
Reds certainly looked like championship material when they charged through the first stage unbeaten last year, but Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s greater consistency consigned them to the playoffs. Once there, with their season on the line and bogey team Gamba Osaka standing in their way, it was little surprise to see Urawa crumble.
But it was not all bad news for Reds, who unearthed a new star in Yuki Muto and played with a verve and urgency not seen at Saitama Stadium for quite some time. Further quality has now been added in the shape of Japan Under-23 captain Wataru Endo and Slovenian defender Branko Ilic, bolstering a squad that was already the deepest in the league.
That said, Urawa does still lack a striker who can guarantee 20 goals a season. Shinzo Koroki, Zlatan Ljubijankic and Tadanari Lee all made a contribution last year, but the fact that the league’s second-place team did not have a player among the top five goalscorers tells its own story.
Mental strength, however, remains the greatest obstacle to a first title since 2006. If Urawa can conquer that, the wait could be over.
Last season: fourth
Tokyo needed only to win on the final day of last season to clinch a place in the playoffs, but a dull 0-0 draw with Sagan Tosu seemed an apt fate for a team that had struggled to score all year.
Tokyo managed just 45 goals — 11 fewer than third-place Gamba Osaka — with 10 of those coming from star forward Yoshinori Muto, who left for German side Mainz at the end of the first stage.
Club brass will be hoping that the return of manager Hiroshi Jofuku, who led Tokyo to fifth place and the Nabisco Cup title in 2009 but was fired the next season with the team slipping toward relegation, can instill a more attacking style than Italian Massimo Ficcadenti produced during his two years in charge.
The arrival of ex-national team full back Yoichi Komano should help, especially if he can rekindle his understanding with former Jubilo Iwata teammate Ryoichi Maeda. It remains to be seen, however, if the pair can improve on last season’s supply line of Muto and Kosuke Ota, who have both left for Europe.
Tokyo should have enough quality to challenge for the title again, but with a fourth managerial change in the space of six years, will the team be on the same page from the start?
Last season: fifth
Antlers can count themselves unlucky not to have won the second-stage title and a place in the championship playoffs last year, but in truth their performances over the entire season can leave them few complaints.
Kashima started far too slowly to make an impression on the overall table, although the team’s transformation when manager Masatada Ishii took over from Toninho Cerezo in July was striking. The 3-0 win over Gamba Osaka in October’s Nabisco Cup final was one of the performances of the season, and if Antlers can continue in the same vein they will indeed be strong contenders this year.
The fact that midfield orchestrator Gaku Shibasaki’s rumored move to Europe failed to materialize is a huge plus, as is the permanent transfer of forward Mu Kanazaki, who was named to the J. League’s Best XI and won himself a national team recall last year but looked set to return to Portuguese club Portimonense.
Antlers have been further strengthened by the arrival of former Shonan Bellmare midfielder Ryota Nagaki and Japan Under-23 internationals Masatoshi Kushibiki and Kento Misao, although the pressure will be on Ishii with such little managerial experience.
But Antlers have a potent mix of youth and experience, a recent taste of cup success and, in Shibasaki, one of the best players in the league.
Should at least get into the playoffs this time.
Last season: sixth
Frontale have been hanging on the shoulder of the J. League’s leading pack for the past few seasons, but manager Yahiro Kazama will expect his team to graduate into fully fledged contenders this year.
With midfield general Kengo Nakamura and three-time league top scorer Yoshito Okubo still in the ranks, Frontale certainly have a chance. The midseason departure of Brazilian Renato blunted Frontale’s challenge last year, but the club has been busy this winter raising the overall strength of the squad.
Japan Under-23 players Riki Harakawa and Tatsuki Nara, seasoned midfielder Kenta Kano and former Japan striker Takayuki Morimoto — still only 27 — have all joined, while last season’s Achilles’ heel — defense — has also been addressed by the arrival of Brazilian center back Eduardo Neto.
It is unclear how many of those players will feature regularly in Kazama’s starting lineup, but the manager already has quality at his disposal. Whether that will be enough to overtake the league’s heaviest hitters, who have also been busy in the transfer market, remains to be seen.
Frontale have the potential to be in the title shake-up, but they will have to raise their level a notch.
YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS
Last season: seventh
Marinos went within a whisker of claiming the title in 2013, but the three-time champions have since regressed to the extent that last season’s seventh-place finish felt like something of an achievement.
Yokohama finished a full 19 points behind first-place Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the overall table and never really looked like breaking into playoff contention. The fact that Manchester City’s owners hold a stake in Marinos means the club could yet unveil a big signing, but for the time being there is little evidence that French manager Erick Mombaerts will have things any easier in his second year in charge.
Mombaerts’ task has been made even more difficult by the departure of on-loan striker Ademilson, who showed flashes of his talent last season but will turn out for Gamba Osaka this term.
That leaves stalwarts Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nakazawa to again shoulder the burden despite starting the season at age 37 and 38, respectively, although there is enough of a supporting cast to make sure Marinos at least stay competitive.
But they will need more than that if they want to get back to the level they were at three years ago. Without a good start, Marinos could drift into the margins again this season.
Last season: eighth
An eighth-place finish last season was a fantastic achievement for Bellmare, whose previous promotions to the top flight — in 2009 and 2012 — both ended in immediate relegation.
The fact that Bellmare not only survived but finished in the top half was a testament to manager Cho Kwi-jea and his players. Speculation that Cho would leave for a bigger challenge over the winter eventually came to nothing, but several key players chose not to follow his lead and the manager now has huge gaps to fill.
Japan international Wataru Endo left for Urawa Reds, club captain Ryota Nagaki joined Kashima Antlers and goalkeeper Yota Akimoto moved to FC Tokyo, and it remains to be seen how their replacements will fare.
Midfielder Paulinho’s career has been spent mostly in J2, former Urawa defender Takuya Okamoto has potential but little experience, and new goalkeeper Tomohiko Murayama had a busy time last season in a Matsumoto Yamaga side that shipped 54 goals on the way to relegation.
That is not to say Bellmare cannot thrive again this year, especially with players such as Kaoru Takayama and Naoki Yamada in the ranks.
A repeat of last year’s heroics, however, looks a tall order.
Last season: ninth
Ninth place last season seemed about right for Grampus, who began the year with forwards Kengo Kawamata and Kensuke Nagai combining well but soon lost their way and never seriously threatened to qualify for the playoffs.
Now Grampus head into the new campaign having undergone root-and-branch reform, with manager Akira Nishino making way for former player Takafumi Ogura and a number of key players departing.
Chief among those was defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, who led the club to the 2010 title and whose presence in the dressing room should not be understated. Tulio’s departure leaves Grampus a completely different proposition, but such a forceful personality can also prove stifling and his former teammates may well feel liberated in his absence.
Nagoya should at least keep its physical edge with the arrival of two Swedes, defender Ludvig Ohman and 198-cm striker Robin Simovic, and left back Michihiro Yasuda should also bring some fire after signing from Vissel Kobe.
But how Ogura brings the team together in his dual role of manager and GM is anyone’s guess. The former striker-turned-TV personality is a coaching novice, and Nagoya’s recent lack of success suggests it will be a difficult place to start.
Could go either way.