Special to The Japan Times

Shimizu S-Pulse manager Steve Perryman, 47, was one of the best-known and most-respected players in England in the ’70s and ’80s. He played with top London club Tottenham Hotspur for 17 years and made a club record 655 appearances. As a player and as captain, he lead Spurs to glory in two F.A. Cups, two League Cups and two UEFA Cups, as well as making 17 appearances for England’s Under-23 team and gaining one full cap. He was voted Player of the Year by the English Football Writers’ Association in 1982. Toward the end of his playing career, he played for Oxford and Brentford. He went on to manage Brentford (where he was succeeded by Phil Holder, his assistant at S-Pulse) and Watford before joining Ossie Ardiles as a coach at Spurs (1993-94) and then S-Pulse (1996-present). This is his first full season as Shimizu’s manager after taking over from Ardiles at the end of last year.

If last Saturday’s Xerox Super Cup is anything to go by, this season will be a competitive one. Even without star midfielder Jorginho, the Antlers showed they are a champion team.

And, of course, we showed we’re right behind them!

Seriously, I think that’s going to be the theme of this season — a lot of teams with good quality fighting it out for the title, and if the other teams have had as good a preseason as we’ve had then you’re going to see some tough, competitive matches.

Obviously, I think we’re going to win the title, but the Antlers, Jubilo, Grampus Eight, the Reds, Reysol, the Marinos and possible one or two other teams are going to make it a real dogfight at the top of the table.

And with the departure of a number of the best foreign players — for example, Dunga at Jubilo and Kashima’s Jorginho — I think the squads are far more even than in the past. This will put the emphasis on tactics, fitness and coaching and makes for an intriguing season.

Added to this, the economic situation in the country and within Japanese football has called for a few cutbacks and in general I think the league is finding its right level. Maybe it needed a bit of rationalization after its early stages and the hysteria surrounding Japan’s first World Cup appearance, but now I think it’s on a firm foundation in the leadup to the Japan-Korea World Cup in 2002. I think at the national level and the domestic level Japan’s football fans have got a lot to look forward to over the coming season and subsequent seasons.

Japanese players are learning all the time and it’s good to see some of them going overseas to improve themselves. This will help the national team and hopefully spur players based in Japan to improve themselves.

I’m looking forward to this season and the players at S-Pulse are all in a positive frame of mind. I’m sure the players at all the other clubs are up for the new season, too.

I’m just waiting for when Saturday comes.

Kashima Antlers>
First stage: 5th
Second stage: champions

The Antlers were worthy champions last year as they had so many good elements to their game. They are the best team at attacking you from different angles — they can pass through you, beat you on the break, beat you down the flanks and beat you from set pieces. They also change things around up front during games and move well off the ball. In addition, they have an English-style crossing game and are powerful in the air.

If one part of their game isn’t working, they don’t have any problem getting you some other way as we found to our cost in last week’s Xerox Super Cup.

I particularly like Koji Kumagai who seems to have been groomed to take over from Jorghino in midfield, although I understand he’s injured at the moment, hence the return of Toru Oniki from a loan spell at Kawasaki Frontale.

I’m also a big admirer of Naoki Soma. He’s one player I wouldn’t mind having on my team. It’s interesting to note that he won the league’s fair play award; it means he doesn’t miss many games through suspension, but I sometimes think he should be a little more physical.

Another of their big strengths is their forward line. They’re very powerful, good in the air and are very fit.

Kashima also has a good crowd supporting them and the team has learned how to win. They’ve brought in five players from their youth team for this season, which should help them maintain the good balance they have in the team. This is credit to the backroom staff.

I really like Mazinho. He’s very competitive and very clever and someone you can trust on the ball. In addition, he’s very aggressive in the box and attacks the ball.

In defense, Yutaka Akita is solid. He’s a no-frills player who takes responsibility and puts his name on the ball. In short, he’s a winner.

The Antlers showed last week that they are going to be tough to beat with their solid defense and varied attacking play.

Jubilo Iwata>
First stage: champions
Second stage: 2nd

Jubilo’s lost Dunga, who’s been a big influence on the team, so we’ll have to see how the team develops without him. He led by fear a little bit, but he left the team with some good habits — and some not so good.

They’re a balanced team that moves the ball well in little triangles with a lot of support and they’re not a team you can outrun — Masashi Nakayama runs all over the field. But the whole team just does not accept being beaten; they all want to change the result when they’re not winning and they take you right to the last second.

In defense, I like the Brazilian center-back Adilson who is also a big influence on the team and might fill some of the void left by Dunga. He’s good in the air, but other teams keep feeding him the ball. If they keep doing that, they’re not going to get very far.

Another player I like is forward Naohiro Takahara. He’s only 19, but he’s a very good player. He’s tallish (181 cm) but mobile and could feature more this year. He could be a good foil for Nakayama.

Daisuke Oku didn’t show his stuff after being called up to the national team, but he’s a good player and deserved to be selected on his league form. He’s another one who just doesn’t stop running. They also have Hiroshi Nanami in midfield who is a real quality player with a classy left foot.

Overall, they’re a good, aggressive, free-flowing team that has had some success and wants more. They’re a largely Japanese team and have a good Japanese manager. (Takashi) Kuwahara is back in charge. He led them to the title in 1997 and his return is bound to boost the team. Basically, they have to get over the departure of Dunga, but I think they have the players and attitude to do that.

JEF United Ichihara>
First stage: 11th
Second stage: bottom (18th)

Gert Engels showed he knows what he’s doing last year when he took over from Carlos Rexach at the Yokohama Flugels in the middle of the second stage and led them to victory in the Emperor’s Cup. He’s done well in picking up the overflow of players from the Marinos-Flugels merger. I suppose the foreigners they had last season have gone for financial reasons, but after the Flugels dumped their foreigners, they became a At least we won’t have to deal with Nenad Maslovar’s left foot, free-kicks and corners this year.

Eisuke Nakanishi impresses me a lot; he can play. He’s a force in both boxes and he’s very sharp, despite not being so big. I also like Satoshi Yamaguchi — he’s a solid defender and does most things right.

I think anything they do is going to come from teamwork. At times last year, JEF looked like they were well-coached — they really looked like they knew what they were doing and I’m sure Engels will take them down the same road.

Kashiwa Reysol>
First stage: 10th
Second stage: 8th

Reysol handed us one of our few defeats at home last season. They have the manager (Akira Nishino) from the Atlanta Olympic team and Ossie and I were very impressed with his tactics.

I never feel comfortable playing against them. They’re always competitive and are able to match us for tempo and there’s a passion about the club. You know when you play them, it will be a real game.

Hristo Stoichkov has got fire in his boots when he’s up for it, but playing in Japanese football is a bit of a change and requires adjustments. He relies on good service and he gets frustrated when he thinks he’s not getting it; perhaps he’s not as fast as he has been. It was a bit of a strange move acquiring him; I really think that signing him disrupted the team. But if he fits in with what they’ve got, then, of course, he can be very dangerous.

Young goalkeeper Yuta Minami did well; now they have former Japan goalkeeping coach Mario, he should do even better. In defense, they’ve managed to pick up a real competitor in Norihiro Satsukawa from the Flugels, although sometimes he’s a little too competitive.

Takahiro Shimotaira is among the best defensive midfielders in the country and his distribution is excellent. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve stolen South Korea’s Hong Myung Bo away from Bellmare, so Kashiwa has a real solid foundation to build on.

I like the tempo of Kashiwa. They play a lively game and for a while were one of the top teams, but when Edilson departed they lost their ability to score goals, which all teams need. It will be interesting to see if Stoichkov, or anyone else, can at last fill that gap. If they click, they’re likely to be a very dangerous team.

Urawa Reds>
First stage: 7th
Second stage: 3rd

The team is basically now built around Shinji Ono, which is amazing to think as last year was his first year as a professional footballer and he’s still only 19. Unfortunately for him, it was a very busy year — in fact, it was too busy. He had far too many distractions.

We were very disappointed we couldn’t sign him as he’s from Shizuoka. The Reds’ youth program is very strong and they are good at snatching players out from under the noses of other teams.

I love Ono’s vision and ability to place the ball and do so many different things. Most defenses can cope with the normal; he does things that aren’t normal, and he can score great goals.

Another bonus for the Reds is that they have two good foreigners. Zeljko Petrovic gives them good tempo and has a lively spirit, which you need on a team, especially one with such passionate supporters as the Reds have. The crowd actually seems to dictate the tempo of the Reds’ games. It’s the same at Kashiwa and for us. The Reds’ crowd seems to give the team substance; it gives them power and passion.

Aitor Beguiristain also gave them some quality, especially with his ability to deliver the ball and arrive in good forward positions at the right moment.

The Reds’ creative ability is very good, but now they are also keeping goals out. They even have two good goalkeepers, which is unusual.

Kenji Oshiba and Masayuki Okano give the team thrust up front, although it’s not certain that Okano is going to play for them and when he does, he may not be in the starting lineup. It’s possible that manager Hiromi Hara will play 188-cm rookie college graduate Kohei Morita up front. If he can fit in as quickly as Ono did and if Ono can place the ball on his head, it could prove a clever combination.

The Reds are a dangerous team and difficult to play against. If they remain tight at the back, they could be contenders.

Verdy Kawasaki>
First stage: 6th
Second stage: 17th

Since I’ve been here, Verdy have always been pretty solid and hard to play against, but their results have been a bit disappointing. I think in the end, the team just got too old. In addition, they seemed to have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Basically, the balance was all wrong.

Now they are reorganizing in a big way. There have been big changes in the front office — they stole one of our guys to help them reorganize — but they need to do likewise on the pitch.

This season will no doubt be one of reshaping and reforming the team. They have to rediscover their own particular brand of football after losing it following their early successes in the J. League. Success often breaks up teams, in part because players start to believe their own press and become self-important.

I think what happened in the end was that the people running the team couldn’t see the wood for the trees. They stuck with the big names and overlooked some great young prospects who were transferred, loaned out or drifted out of the top team.

Now the likes of Ruy Ramos and Tetsuji Hashiratani have retired; Masakiyo Maezono has stayed in Brazil; Kazu has gone to Croatia; and a large number of players, including six foreigners, have moved on. It’s all change in Kawasaki and I suspect it won’t be an easy year for them. Coaches Kunihide Lee and Hideki Matsunaga have got an interesting first year coming up.

Yokohama F. Marinos>
First stage: 4th
Second stage: 4th

The Marinos have got a lot of players and obviously did well out of the “merger” with the Flugels. I’m happy for them that they’ve picked up our old boy Hideki Nagai in midfield; he just keeps getting better and better and could have a big influence on the team as he did with the Flugels, especially at the end of last season.

But they’ve also done well in acquiring midfielder Atsuhiro Miura, defender Kazuki Sato and striker Takayuki Yoshida. They picked well and the team will have a strong Japanese look about it, which will help the teamwork a lot.

They’ve got rid of Julio Baldivieso, which is a bit of a surprise. Although he was poor to begin with, he got better as time went on and in the end drove the team to success.

The performances of Julio Salinas and Jon Andoni Goikoetxea were probably responsible for the manager going; they didn’t quite deliver.

We always have good games against the Marinos; they’re very open and creative and I always think we have a chance to score against them, which is strange as they’ve got two strong national team central defenders in Masami Ihara and Norio Omura. Ihara’s legs are not getting any younger and the backs have a habit of committing themselves too much, so there’s always chances there.

If your attackers do get through, they still have to find a way past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi in goal. He’s good, but he has bad moments in every game and if you can take advantage of that you’re in with a chance.

If they can pull in big crowds to Yokohama International Stadium that could work in their favor, but the flipside of that is if they don’t, it could work against them. Also as half the team is new, they may take some time to settle. But it should help that the coach — Antonio de la Cruz — has been appointed from within.

Bellmare Hiratsuka>
First stage: 12th
Second stage: 12th

The best you can say about Bellmare is that this year will be a consolidation season for them. I presume they have money problems as they’ve sold all their jewels — Hidetoshi Nakata, Wagner Lopes, Hong Myung Bo, Kazuaki Tasaka. Tasaka was an important player for them — he gave them a bit of definition in midfield — and Hong was a rock at the back.

As a team, they were too inconsistent — they were one thing or the other. At times they could be very good, but then, at others, they were really poor.

If the team can pull together, maybe they can turn things around, but the signs are not good.

Shimizu S-Pulse>
First stage: 2nd
Second stage: 5th

We’ve retained all our players — with the notable exception of Fernando Oliva — and brought in four new ones, including three attackers (Sotaro Yasunaga from the Marinos and Hiroki Hattori and Yoshikiyo Kuboyama from the Flugels). The fourth one is Tasaka, who should be a very good acquisition for us. I believe the new players will blend in with our team system and bring us up to another level. They’ve shown they can fit in during the preseason and in the Xerox Super Cup. It’s great to have more options.

But the new boys are coming into a good team and they are going to have to compete for places. Again this is all positive and it’s given us a lift in training — the quality of the training sessions is definitely getting better. The players want to show what they’ve got and they want to work, to play and to win. They’re very focused.

I am planning to keep our discipline and style; we want to play with a smile and put a smile on the face of our supporters.

Nagoya Grampus Eight>
First stage: 3rd
Second stage: 6th

Nagoya’s biggest problem last year was that they didn’t play together as a team. They’ve picked up three huge players in striker Wagner Lopes, defensive midfielder Motohiro Yamaguchi and goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki. That’s three big assets and almost immediately gives them a solid backbone. Add to that an ability to create and score goals and you have to think Grampus Eight are in with a chance of trophies this year.

I really admire the skill of Dragan Stojkovic — he’s got balance, ability and two very good feet. The eternal problem with Stojkovic, though, is that he can lead the team into bad as well as good things. It’s nice that he’s shown such loyalty to the team. He seems to be a really nice guy, but then he can turn into a fiend on the field and there are times when you just want to give him a good kick up the backside and ask him just to get on with playing football, which he does best. Having said that, he should link up well with Lopes. They’re both quick thinkers and good finishers and could plunder a lot of goals between them.

Grampus Eight also have Takashi Hirano, who can score and make goals with his excellent left foot, but, like Stojkovic, he can also be a bit of a liability at times. These two are not always team players but they can do great things. If Takafumi Ogura is fit, he provides a touch of class to the team and could keep Hirano out of the lineup. But Ogura still seems to be struggling and may start on the bench.

Back in the engine room, Shigeyoshi Mochizuki keeps the ball moving well and he seems to be improving mentally all the time. He’s 25 and could be a big force in the league in the next few years.

I always feel Yamaguchi could do more. He’s a good asset but at times you feel he should be involved more. He seems to be out of favor in the national side so it’ll be interesting to see if he has the character to fight his way back at the age of 30. With Torres behind him, he may feel more confident about moving forward and this could make Grampus Eight even more dangerous when they attack.

Kyoto Purple Sanga>
First stage: 15th
Second stage: 11th

Purple Sanga stayed in the top flight after getting out of jail in the playoffs, so there was always the possibility they would struggle this season. To make things worse, they’ve lost a load of good players, especially midfielder Hajime Moriyasu who could pass and score pretty well. At the back, Junior also did a very good job for them in midfield.

They’ve picked up six players from the Flugels, but the best of their new men is midfielder Fumitake Miura from the overstocked Marinos. Hopefully, he can link up with former Olympic team member Shigeru Morioka (in from Gamba Osaka) in the middle of the park. In addition, they have former national team member Shigetatsu Matsunaga in goal. He may be 36, but he got them out of trouble a few times last year. He’ll probably have to do the same this year.

Purple Sanga seem to operate mostly with other teams’ castoffs, but some of these guys still have some stuff left in them. Ex-Antlers striker Hisashi Kurosaki may be 30 but he’s still productive and with his height he gives the attack someone to aim at. If they can stop goals going in at the back then they have a chance of staying clear of relegation.

Gamba Osaka>
First stage: 14th
Second stage: 16th

Their good season was when Patrick Mboma was up front, which shows the importance of having a strong goalscorer — it can often hide a team’s weaknesses.

With Frederic Antonetti and Christian Villanova as coaches, they’re obviously sticking with a French flavor this year, not a bad idea considering France won the World Cup and the (English) Premier League in 1998.

Gamba’s biggest assets are midfielder Junichi Inamoto and defender Tsuneyama Miyamoto who both showed great improvement at the Asian Games in December. Along with 19-year-old forward Ryuji Bando, it gives the club a good, young foundation to build on. The arrival of former Japan right back Hiroshige Yanagimoto from Hiroshima will also strengthen the team. He is very quick and has good quality on the ball.

Midfielder Piotr Swierczewski arrives from French team Bastia. He’s only 26 and has 37 caps for Poland so he might be a really big catch for Gamba. They could actually be dark horses this season.

Cerezo Osaka>
First stage: 9th
Second stage: 13th

For some reason, Cerezo has been putting a lot of Korean eggs into its basket. Hwang Sun Hong is a decent striker and the addition of ex-Sanfrecce forward Noh Jung Yoon this season could lead to a pretty potent strike force. They’ve also picked up Shintetsu Gen from Verdy so it will be interesting to see how the manager arranges his strike force.

New manager Rene Desaeyere is Belgian but also comes via Korea so he should be able to use the two Korean strikers well and shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with Japanese ways.

Cerezo’s game has largely been based around Japan player Hiroaki Morishima, a busy little attacking midfielder who really makes things happen. He has a great eye for other players and is very good at getting into the box and scoring goals.

Cerezo also has one of our old boys in defense in Takumi Horiike. He may be 33, but he’s a very good defender and will bring stability and experience to the back line.

Cerezo has always been a team that has picked up some big wins, but their consistency has let them down. They can score goals; the big question is can they stop them.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima>
First stage: 13th
Second stage: 9th

Eddie Thomson has got Sanfrecce well organized. They’re a free-running team that gets behind the ball and really competes. They are what you would call a result-oriented team that can grind out results when they have to. They did well against the Antlers last year and when we played them, they really imposed themselves on us. Tactically, they are very, very astute.

Scotsman Eddie has put his Australian connections to good use and picked up some good overseas players, all of whom have stayed with the team from the latter part of last season, although England’s Jon Goodman has gone on loan to Barnsley and may not be back. The club doesn’t splash out on high-priced, high-profile players; they limit their budget and cut their cloth accordingly. It seems that Eddie has brought a good sense of Scottish housekeeping to the club.

It’s hard to say how high they can finish, but I would suspect they will have more luck in the cups than in the league. But, like us, they’re organized, they’re together and they have a chance of having a really good season.

I particularly like Hajime Moriyasu who is returning from a loan spell at Purple Sanga; he’s a typical, straightforward midfielder — get it, give it, move it. He makes things happen. Up front Tatsuhiko Kubo is very exciting, although he can be a bit iffy. He’s tall and can be good with the ball but he is either very good or very average. But he is their main goalscoring hope and needs to stay clear of injury.

Vissel Kobe>
First stage: 17th
Second stage: 14th

They beat us pretty good toward the end of last year, but I don’t think it was a typical game for either of us. Manager Benito Floro is out — along with 16 other players — and ex-Verdy man Ryoichi Kawakatsu has taken over, so he may bring some good habits with him.

Vissel is another club that has delved into the Korean market and they have a real winner in Ha Seok Ju, who was impressive in the Korean national team at the World Cup until he got sent off. He’s just turned 31 but he still has a lot of power and you won’t find many more competitive players in the league. He’ll link up with compatriots Choi Sung Yong in midfield and Kim Do Hoon up front and it could prove an impressive attacking force.

Also up front is veteran Akihiro Nagashima who may look slow at times but is very strong and is always capable of scoring goals out of nothing. His ability in the main is to consistently hit the target; he doesn’t waste many chances. But at 35, you have to ask how long he can continue.

Avispa Fukuoka>
First stage: bottom (18th)
Second stage: 15th

Manager Takaji Mori is out along with two foreigners — Dragan Dukanovic and Miodrag Bozovic — but the club has brought in a couple of good veterans in goalkeeper Nobuyuki Kojima and Yasutoshi Miura, Kazu’s brother, who used to play for us. Although he’s 33, he’s got a sound football brain and should give them a creative spark and a bit of energy in midfield. Kojima’s a good keeper and big, which should offer a sense of security to the back line.

I always thought we would beat Avispa when we met them, but they always gave us a tight game. Although they’re a small club, perhaps they’re underestimated a little bit. But they need to get their foreign players right. They can’t afford to carry anybody.

I think this year will be a testing time for them, but there were signs last year that the team was developing. They played with some spirit and were, at times, perhaps a little too competitive, especially the defenders who had a habit of overcommitting themselves and picking up bookings the team could ill-afford.

Manager Yoshio Kikugawa has stepped back out of the front office and may have something to build on. There were encouraging signs last year, but they have a small squad and could suffer from injuries and suspensions.

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