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Opening day gives hint of things to come in 20th season


Staff Writer

The future is hardly set in stone after one round of matches, but as the J. League kicked off its 20th season on Saturday, there were some tantalizing glimpses of what lies ahead.

The day began with a poignant meeting between two teams who were temporarily displaced from their stadiums after last year’s March 11 disasters, with Vegalta Sendai beating Kashima Antlers 1-0 thanks to a typically robust header from new signing Taikai Uemoto. Vegalta defied expectations with a best-ever fourth-place finish last season, and after deftly handling an experienced Kashima side, Makoto Teguramori’s men may well prove to be more than just a flash in the pan.

Ambitious Vissel Kobe put their money where their mouth is with a 3-2 win over Gamba Osaka, for whom the defensive frailties of previous manager Akira Nishino’s reign were as pronounced as ever under new man Jose Carlos Serrao, despite the presence of star signing Yasuyuki Konno.

There was no such goal flurry in Consadole Sapporo’s match against Jubilo Iwata or Sagan Tosu’s clash with Cerezo Osaka, but with Consadole and Sagan both feeling their way into the first division following promotion last year, both will be happy with 0-0 draws.

A solitary point will not be enough to satisfy Nagoya Grampus over the months to come, however, with manager Dragan Stojkovic blaming eight draws for the 2010 champions’ failure to retain their title last season. A 1-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse took care of that on Saturday, and the fact that the winner came courtesy of a Josh Kennedy penalty suggests efficiency is very much Nagoya’s watchword this year.

And so to Sunday, where Kashiwa Reysol began the defense of their title with a 3-3 free-for-all draw with Yokohama F. Marinos, leaving Reysol manager Nelsinho in bullish mood despite Hiroyuki Taniguchi’s injury-time equalizer.

“I’m not satisfied with the result but I’m satisfied with my players’ attitude,” said the Brazilian. “I think you could see that we will again be aiming for the top.”

After staking an early claim on the opening weekend, others will believe they can do the same.

A slow start is becoming something of an unwanted habit for Urawa Reds.

The 2006 champions began the new campaign with a 1-0 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday, making it five years in a row that Urawa has tasted defeat on the opening day of the season.

New manager Mihailo Petrovic had extra motivation to break that cycle at Hiroshima Big Arch, having joined Reds after 5½ years in charge of Sanfrecce, but the Austrian knows his new team’s fortunes are not going to change overnight.

“The players showed their fighting spirit,” he said. “If we have that, then through more games and more training we will be able to play some good, attacking football.”

It had to happen sooner or later, but Consadole Sapporo defender Tatsuki Nara made history on Saturday when he became the first player born after the J. League had kicked off its inaugural season to appear in the first division.

Nara, who was born on Sept. 19, 1993, made his debut for Consadole in J2 last year, but his presence in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Jubilo Iwata marked a symbolic moment on the first day of the J. League’s 20th season.

Nara may not recall Yokohama Marinos’ 2-1 win over Verdy Kawasaki that ushered in a new era back on May 15, 1993, but the defender is more concerned with 2012 and keeping Consadole in the first division.

“I want to build up my body and increase my stamina,” he said.

Quotable: “It was good reanimation from the medical staff. We gave him life elixir and now he is young again.” — FC Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic explains how 33-year-old striker Lucas — who came out of retirement to help the club win the second division last season — was able to score the match-winning goal against Omiya Ardija on Saturday.