Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Hajime Moriyasu admits that even he wasn’t convinced his team would win the J. League title last season, but that doesn’t mean he is ruling out further success in 2016.

Sanfrecce beat Gamba Osaka in a two-legged championship playoff to lift the trophy for the third time in four years, following a regular-season campaign in which they scored more goals and conceded less than any other team on the way to a league-record points haul.

At the start of the season, however, Sanfrecce’s prospects looked far less certain. An eighth-place finish the previous year was followed by the offseason departure of influential forwards Yojiro Takahagi and Naoki Ishihara, and title favorites Gamba and Urawa Reds threatened to leave Sanfrecce flailing in their wake.

But when play began, it soon became clear that Moriyasu had a contender on his hands. Sanfrecce steadily grew in confidence as the season progressed, and by the time captain Toshihiro Aoyama lifted the trophy there could be no denying their worth as champions.

“I wasn’t surprised, but it wasn’t a season that started with me being sure of winning the title,” Moriyasu said ahead of Sanfrecce’s season opener at home to Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday.

“In camp, the players put what had happened the previous season behind them, and they knew that they had to improve. They had that sense of urgency, and I knew we could win the title if we kept it going.”

Moriyasu was helped by outstanding performances from J. League player of the year Aoyama, evergreen striker Hisato Sato and rising star Takuma Asano, whose goal in the second leg of the championship final killed off Gamba’s challenge.

The team lost Brazilian striker Douglas to the United Arab Emirates over the offseason, but replacement Peter Utaka has been impressed by his new surroundings since joining on loan from Shimizu S-Pulse.

“The unity here from the boss down to the youngest players is very strong,” said Nigerian Utaka, who scored in last Saturday’s 3-1 Fuji Xerox Super Cup win over Gamba. “Everyone tries to help each other, and they don’t look down on any player. They always help and support each other.”

Sanfrecce’s resources were stretched to the limit at the end of last season, when the J. League’s new playoff format and participation in both the Club World Cup and Emperor’s Cup saw Moriyasu’s side play eight games in December alone.

Sanfrecce’s involvement in the Asian Champions League this season means games will continue to come thick and fast, but Moriyasu believes last year’s experience will stand his team in good stead.

“This year we have more competition for places among the players,” said Moriyasu, whose team opened its ACL campaign with a 2-1 defeat to China’s Shandong Luneng on Tuesday.

“We have to play in both the J. League and ACL and that is difficult, but the fact that we were able to win games at the Club World Cup was good for our confidence. It was a good dress rehearsal.

“I get the impression that the players have become physically stronger at our training camps. I don’t know if this is the right word, but you need to be ready for a battle in the ACL.”

The financial muscle of Chinese clubs will make Sanfrecce’s continental challenge a tough one — Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande recently bought Colombian striker Jackson Martinez for $46 million — but Moriyasu takes comfort from his side’s 2-1 win over Guangzhou at the Club World Cup.

“Guangzhou’s budget is probably over 20 times what ours is,” he said. “They have a budget of ¥50 billion but we beat them at the Club World Cup and showed that we can win if we play our game.”

ACL glory, however, is not Sanfrecce’s only target this season. A fourth J. League title in five years would establish Sanfrecce as the league’s second-most successful club behind Kashima Antlers, and Aoyama is ready for the challenge.

“Our aim is always to win the title,” said the 30-year-old midfielder. “We had won the title twice before, so we knew what we needed to do last year. We won the title twice and then finished the next year eighth, so going into last season we knew we had to be united.

“We’re always going to be the kind of club that has players coming in and going out, but we know how to deal with it. If you can’t, you can’t say you’re a genuinely strong team. This year we’ve changed again, but we’re aiming for the title.”

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