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Cerezo target J. League upset

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The following is the first of a two-part preview for the upcoming J. League season. Team-by-team previews of the nine lowest-ranking teams competing in the first division are listed.

YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS

Last season: 10th

Marinos fans had high expectations when the City Football Group that owns England’s Manchester City bought a stake in the club in 2014, but results since then have been unspectacular and last season’s 10th-place finish was a pretty accurate picture of a club treading water.

Yokohama’s stagnation was too much for star player Shunsuke Nakamura to bear, with the 38-year-old jumping ship for Jubilo Iwata over the offseason. A winter clear-out of several other team mainstays means the club heads into the new season with a radically different look, although some of the new faces should at least make things interesting.

Marinos have done their shopping mainly in Europe, with Portuguese journeyman Hugo Vieira and Macedonian former Barcelona youth product David Babunski both arriving from Red Star Belgrade. Australian defender Milos Degenek has also joined from Stuttgart, while a decent crop of Japanese players, including Takahiro Ogihara and Ryosuke Yamanaka, have arrived from around the J. League.

Marinos have also retained the services of winger Manabu Saito — by far their best player last season — but to paint the team’s prospects as rosy would be a stretch and much work still needs to be done before a serious title challenge is possible.

Another top-half finish would constitute an achievement.

SAGAN TOSU

Last season: 11th

Tosu suffered a scare last season when a poor start saw the club finish the first stage in 15th place, but a much-improved second-stage performance steered it out of choppy waters.

The Kyushu side has finished in the top five twice since gaining promotion to J1 in 2011, but those overachieving days appear to be over after two successive 11th-place finishes. Reports of an offer for FC Tokyo’s Japan center back Masato Morishige over the winter suggest that Tosu has the ambition to climb higher, but the players that actually arrived point instead toward another season of midtable mediocrity.

Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa and defender Yuzo Kobayashi are all solid J. League veterans, while incoming striker Yuji Ono showed promise at Yokohama F. Marinos before his career was derailed by a difficult time in Belgium. None of the new arrivals seem likely to lift Tosu up to a higher plane, however, and the club will once again look to standard-bearer Yohei Toyoda to deliver the goods.

Toyoda, who has scored at least 13 goals every season since joining Tosu in 2010, will need to shoulder even more responsibility now that fellow forward Kim Min-woo has left the club.

Even still, Tosu should still have enough quality to beat the drop.

VEGALTA SENDAI

Last season: 12th

Last season hardly set the pulses racing at Vegalta, with a 12th-place finish in each of the first-stage, second-stage and overall tables as exciting as it got.

Vegalta were never involved in either a push for the playoffs or a relegation dogfight, which could be seen as a curse or a blessing, given the big-name clubs that have dropped into J2 in recent years.

Whether Vegalta stick or twist this season remains to be seen, and a number of comings and goings over the winter further clouds the picture. Striker Wilson, who played a huge role in Vegalta’s surprise runner-up finish in 2012, has left for Ventforet Kofu, while fellow first-team regulars Hirofumi Watanabe and Ramon Lopes have also moved on.

In their place come a handful of familiar J. League faces, including former Kashiwa Reysol defender Tatsuya Masushima, FC Tokyo enigma Sota Hirayama, and forward Naoki Ishihara, whose two-year stint at Urawa Reds was badly interrupted by injuries.

Whether the new arrivals are better than the players they are replacing is open to question, and Vegalta will also have to watch their backs given the caliber of the teams who have come up this year.

How Vegalta start the season could set the tone for the rest of the year.

JUBILO IWATA

Last season: 13th

Jubilo might have been expecting better than a brush with relegation on their return to the top flight last season, but survival is nothing to be sniffed at and manager Hiroshi Nanami will be aiming to build on that achievement this time round.

Jubilo started well but dropped off alarmingly last season, finishing the first stage in eighth place before failing to win a single game until the 10th round of the second stage. That put Nanami’s side in danger of going down heading into the last day of the season, but a 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai, combined with the ineptitude of others, saw Jubilo live to fight another day.

Iwata’s offseason acquisition of Shunsuke Nakamura was one of the most notable deals of the winter, but at 38 and with a long history of injuries, it is difficult — although not impossible — to see the former Celtic star turning his new team into genuine title contenders.

Nanami can expect new striker Kengo Kawamata to score goals, however, and the former Nagoya Grampus man will have to now that English forward Jay Bothroyd has left the club. Uzbek midfielder Fozil Musaev is another interesting arrival, although hardly a safe bet for a team that flirted with relegation last season.

Jubilo should have enough quality to survive again, but it remains to be seen how much higher they can climb.

VENTFORET KOFU

Last season: 14th

Ventforet preserved their top-flight status for a fifth straight year despite finishing last season with five defeats from their final seven games, but 2017 is hardly likely to be any easier for J1’s perennial escape artists.

The midseason departure of striker Cristiano to Kashiwa Reysol hit Ventforet hard, but the team managed to rack up just enough points early in the second stage to survive its late collapse. A final goal difference of minus-26 is evidence that it wasn’t pretty, however, and a winter clear-out sees Kofu heading into the new campaign with a much-changed squad.

Out go Brazilians Davi and Marquinhos Parana and Australian Billy Celeski, with former Vegalta Sendai striker Wilson the most high-profile of the new arrivals. Fellow Brazilian signings Eder Lima and Gabriel are unknown quantities, while new Japanese recruits have been drawn largely from the lower divisions and universities.

If that does not inspire much confidence among the Ventforet faithful, a first-division field that looks markedly stronger than last year complicates matters further. None of the three promoted sides look like cannon fodder, and Ventforet will need to make a strong start unless they want to set up camp in the relegation zone from the outset.

Much will depend on Wilson’s goals.

ALBIREX NIIGATA

Last season: 15th

Albirex survived in J1 by the skin of their teeth last season, losing seven of their final eight games but staying up on goal difference as Nagoya Grampus slipped through the relegation trapdoor.

The Hokuriku side cannot expect to live such a charmed life again this season without making dramatic improvements, and a squad that looks even weaker than last year’s suggests the walls could be closing in on Niigata’s 14-year stay in the top flight.

First-team stalwarts Leo Silva, Michael Fitzgerald and Rafael Silva all left over the winter, with former Niigata player Kisho Yano one of the few recognizable replacements coming in. Albirex do have a solid track record when it comes to signing Brazilian players, however, so new manager Fumitake Miura will be hoping that the latest crop of Roni, Jean Patrick and Tiago Galhardo can emulate their predecessors.

Albirex survived last season largely because they managed to squirrel away points early in the campaign, so Miura and the new signings will have to blend in quickly if they want to take out the same insurance policy this time around.

Otherwise, Albirex may have to rely on simply being not as bad as the teams below them — a strategy that worked last year — but the quality of this year’s promoted sides suggests that to be unlikely.

Could be a season of struggle.

CONSADOLE SAPPORO

Last season: J2 champions

Consadole return to J1 for the first time in five years, and will be hoping to extend their stay in the top flight for more than just the single season they managed after their previous two promotions.

Consadole streaked ahead in the J2 title race last season and looked to have promotion all sewn up, only to lose three of their last six games and limp to the silverware just one point ahead of their second- and third-place rivals.

That close call can be forgotten now that Consadole have returned to the promised land of J1, however, and a series of new arrivals should bolster their chances of staying up. Midfielder Shingo Hyodo served Yokohama F. Marinos with distinction for nine seasons and arrives in Sapporo at the age of 31, while midfielders Ryota Hayasaka and Tomonobu Yokoyama have pedigree from their time at Sagan Tosu and Omiya Ardija, respectively.

Last season’s top scorer, 19-goal Ken Tokura, has stayed with the club, and 2002 World Cup warhorses Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto are still around to offer experience from the bench.

But that does not mean Consadole can take survival for granted, and the overall strength of this season’s J1 field should make every game a tough one for Shuhei Yomoda’s side.

Could go either way.

SHIMIZU S-PULSE

Last season: second in J2

S-Pulse return to the top flight after just one year in the second division, but it could have been a very different story had an incredible late-season surge not propelled the Shizuoka side to automatic promotion.

S-Pulse won their last nine games of the season to pip Matsumoto Yamaga to second place on goal difference, helped enormously by the goals of North Korean World Cup striker Chong Tese, who finished top of the J2 scoring chart with 26.

Strike partner Genki Omae also made an important contribution with 18 goals of his own, but S-Pulse will have to do without his services after the 27-year-old moved to Omiya Ardija.

In fact, Omae was just one of a host of players leaving the club over the winter, with midfield stalwart Takuya Honda, one-time prodigy Hideki Ishige and goalkeeper Rikihiro Sugiyama also among those heading for the exit.

Former Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Gakuto Notsuda and Brazilian defender Kanu head the new arrivals, but far more left than came in and where that leaves manager Shinji Kobayashi’s team in 2017 is anyone’s guess.

The continued presence of Chong at least gives S-Pulse a chance. Any eventuality is possible, but Shimizu might just have enough to survive.

CEREZO OSAKA

Last season: fourth in J2 (promoted via playoffs)

Cerezo’s pedigree and smattering of sometime Japan internationals already made them a better bet to survive in the top flight than most J2 playoff winners. But the return of Japan forward Hiroshi Kiyotake over the offseason catapults them into a different bracket of expectations altogether.

Cerezo pulled off the coup of the winter by persuading Kiyotake — in the prime of his career at 27 and steadily becoming the linchpin of the national team — to return to the club after his stint at Spanish side Sevilla failed to work out. Kiyotake joins a squad that already features Japan regular Hotaru Yamaguchi and not-so-regular Yoichiro Kakitani, giving Cerezo — on paper at least — one of the strongest lineups in the league.

If that seems enough to have fans dreaming of a first-ever title, however, one glimpse at last season’s J2 table should be enough of a reality check. Cerezo finished fourth, six points behind third-place Matsumoto Yamaga, conceded 46 goals and squeezed through the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.

Kiyotake is unlikely to transform Cerezo into title candidates single-handedly, but he is undoubtedly a fine player who will illuminate the league if he can reproduce his national team form for his club.

If he can inspire his teammates to raise their game, Cerezo could have a memorable season.