Seeking two tickets to join the nation’s top flight in a year’s time, a total of 12 teams across the nation will launch their Division Two campaigns Saturday.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima is generally regarded as the favorite for one of those slots, and will probably be joined by either Albirex Niigata, recently relegated Consadole Sapporo or Kawasaki Frontale.

One of Sanfrecce’s strengths is in its young talent, many of whom play for either Japan’s Under-22 or Under-20 squads. However, this will mean that the team, managed by Takeshi Ono, may be forced to play without players such as the Morisaki brothers (Kazuyuki and Koji) and Yuichi Komano when the Asian final qualifiers for the 2004 Olympics take place from the end of August through October.

Consadole will be guided by Joao Carlos. The Brazilian has previously managed the Antlers, Grampus and Cerezo but this will be the first time he has worked in Division Two.

A number of players remain from when the team was promoted to the top flight in 1998 and 2001, and providing Carlos can keep a lid on the hot-tempered Will, who has returned to the club, the team should do well.

Sapporo has also sigend defenders Akihiro Tabata from JEF United and Junji Nishizawa from the Antlers to bolster its backline and has a pair of new Brazilian midfielders in Beto from Fluminense and Robertti from Santos.

Albirex have been a constant factor in the promotion race over the last two years under the guidance of young manager Yasuharu Sorimachi, finishing fourth in 2001 and third in 2002. The popular Niigata team, which attracted 21,476 fans per game last year, looks more determined to climb higher this time around.

Niigata has added some quality to its squad with the arrival of former Japan midfielder Motohiro Yamaguchi from Nagoya and defender Koichi Sugiyama from Verdy. Newly signed striker Koji Morita is expected to combine with last year’s J2 top scorer Marcus of Brazil up front.

Kawasaki has signed defender/midfielder Augusto from the Antlers, Panama forward Dely Valdes from Omiya and Brazilian midfielder Juninho from Palmeiras. Manager Nubuhiro Ishizaki is hoping to take the team to J1 in his third season at the club, following last year’s fourth-place finish.

Shonan Bellmare has required the services of former Japan assistant coach Samir and the Moroccan manager is expected to opt for a 3-5-2 formation to replace the team’s 4-4-2 system.

The Hiratsuka-based club also signed Colombia striker Ricard, who played in the 1998 World Cup alongside Shonan teammate Paracios. Former Reds defender Manabu Ikeda and goalkeeper Hiroki Kobayashi from FC Tokyo will add some security to their team’s defense.

Yokohama FC welcomes back former hero Pierre Littbarski as its new manager. The first job for the former German international will be to tighten up his defense after it conceeded 81 goals last year.

Yokohama acquired former Japan striker Shoji Jo, who was on loan to Vissel Kobe from the Marinos last season, and three players from Europe — German forward Dirk Vanderven, Belgian midfielder Mathieu Boots and Albanian defender Rudi Bata.

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