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Antlers looking to defend J. League crown

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

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

KASHIMA ANTLERS

Last season: champions (third in overall table)

Kashima could not have wished for a better end to last season, winning a record eighth J. League title and the Emperor’s Cup, as well as almost pulling off an almighty upset against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final.

What was not so impressive was Antlers’ patchy form leading up to that dramatic finale, with the team looking distinctly average for much of the season.

Kashima finished third in the overall table, a full 13 points behind second-place Kawasaki Frontale and just one ahead of fourth-place Gamba Osaka. Antlers even lost their last four games of the regular season, but the fact that they got it together when it counted should be ample warning for their rivals in 2017.

Kashima will have to defend its title without playmaker Gaku Shibasaki, who impressed in a more advanced role last year but has since left for Spanish second-division side Tenerife. The squad still looks well stocked in the creative department, however, with forwards Mu Kanazaki and Yasushi Endo being joined over the winter by Brazilians Leo Silva and Pedro Junior.

Add to that a solid defense and a midfield superbly marshalled by Mitsuo Ogasawara and Ryota Nagaki, and it is clear that Antlers start 2017 among the title favorites.

If they can find the consistency that they lacked last year, Antlers could well come out on top again.

URAWA REDS

Last season: runner-up (first in overall table)

Reds were no strangers to stunning collapses even before last season’s defeat to Kashima Antlers in the championship final, but that will not have made the pain of missing out on the title despite finishing top of the overall table any easier to take.

The question for manager Mihailo Petrovic now is how the latest trauma affects his team heading into the new season. It was plain to see last year that Reds perform much better when they shake off the fear and play with confidence, but there were times when they seemed frozen by nerves and opponents will be quick to exploit that weakness again in 2017.

Urawa certainly has a squad capable of winning the title, and offseason comings and goings have been largely restricted to squad players. Forward Rafael Silva will bring extra creativity after arriving from Albirex Niigata, while speedy striker Ado Onaiwu could be a useful weapon coming off the bench.

Urawa boasts one of the strongest and deepest squads in the league and a team that has been playing together for many years, and the return to a single-stage competition may also work to Reds’ advantage given their tendency to crumble in big one-off games.

But Petrovic and his players know full well that starting as favorites is not enough. As always, they will have to prove themselves on the pitch.

KAWASAKI FRONTALE

Last season: third (second in overall table)

Urawa Reds’ heartache at losing the title after finishing first overall put Frontale’s own misery in the shade last year, but there was much for the Kanagawa side to mourn after an abrupt end to a very promising season.

Frontale missed out on the first-stage title by only a point before finishing second in the overall table, two points behind Urawa. Kashima Antlers then promptly threw all that good work out the window by beating Frontale 1-0 in the championship semifinal, and with manager Yahiro Kazama and prolific striker Yoshito Okubo both leaving over the winter, it remains to be seen if the club can pick up the pieces.

Former assistant manager Toru Oniki is the man charged with steadying the ship, and inheriting a squad stocked with talent should help his cause. Chief playmaker Kengo Nakamura was a revelation as he won last season’s J. League player of the year award at the age of 36, while forward Yu Kobayashi, defender Elsinho and goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong all excelled.

New arrivals such as Hiroyuki Abe and Akihiro Ienaga should strengthen Oniki’s hand, but there is no getting around the fact that Okubo will be sorely missed. The striker’s pathological desire to win contributed arguably as much to a notoriously flaky team as his goals did, and replacing that will not be easy.

That said, no one should count Frontale out.

GAMBA OSAKA

Last season: fourth

Gamba’s fourth-place finish should not disguise the fact that last season was a major disappointment for a team that had been tipped to win the title, and manager Kenta Hasegawa will be looking for a big improvement in 2017.

Gamba’s move to their new Suita Stadium evidently took its toll on results, with the team losing four of its first five home games. The summer departure of star forward Takashi Usami complicated matters further, although a late surge saw Gamba finish only one point behind third-place Kashima Antlers and a place in the playoffs.

Offseason signings have been low-key but solid, with midfielder Jin Izumisawa from Omiya Ardija and defender Fabio from Yokohama F. Marinos the most notable arrivals. Hasegawa will be pleased to see forward Ademilson making his loan move from Marinos permanent, although the loss of good players like Kotaro Omori and Hiroyuki Abe will be a worry.

There is still plenty of talent remaining, of course, and if 18-year-old forward Ritsu Doan can force his way into the team and live up to his prodigious reputation, Gamba could dazzle going forward. Tightening up a defense that shipped 42 goals last season should be more of a priority, but then caution has never been Gamba’s style.

Gamba look a shade behind the very top teams, but the title is certainly not out of the question.

OMIYA ARDIJA

Last season: fifth

Omiya had a hugely impressive return to the top flight last season, missing out on fourth place only on the last day of the campaign but still finishing a club-record fifth.

Ardija had never even finished in the top half of the first-division table previously, but Hiroki Shibuya’s promoted side made a strong start and ended up only three points short of a playoff place.

Shibuya was rewarded with some outstanding performances from unlikely places, most notably from midfielder Ataru Esaka, who scored eight league goals in his first season since joining from J2 side Thespakusatsu Gunma. Crafty forward Akihiro Ienaga also chipped in with 11, while only Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers conceded less than the 36 goals that Ardija let in all season.

Omiya could find building on last year’s success difficult, however, and the departure of Ienaga and midfielders Tomonobu Yokoyama and Jin Izumisawa is a blow. The incoming Genki Omae and Ariajasuru Hasegawa will bring guile and dynamism but they will also need to produce goals, with Ardija sorely needing to improve on last season’s disappointing tally of 41.

Omiya may have set the bar a little high by finishing fifth last season, but there is no reason why 2017 cannot be another productive year.

SANFRECCE HIROSHIMA

Last season: sixth

Sanfrecce had to wait until the fourth game of last season before registering their first win, and that turned out to be a fairly apt metaphor for a title defense that never really got off the ground.

The 2015 champions finished fourth in the first-stage table — 10 points behind winners Kashima Antlers — before results tailed off further on the way to a 10th-place second-stage finish, sixth overall.

The form of on-loan striker Peter Utaka — the league’s joint-top scorer with 19 goals — was one bright spot, and Sanfrecce could even have made the playoffs had a run of three straight defeats late in the season not derailed their challenge.

But having lost several key players over the winter, Sanfrecce must now start again. Utaka and talismanic striker Hisato Sato — the second-highest goalscorer in J. League history — have both departed, leaving the squad even lighter in attack following livewire forward Takuma Asano’s move to Stuttgart last summer.

Former Kashiwa Reysol striker Masato Kudo looks a good choice to replenish the attack after arriving from Vancouver Whitecaps, although the responsibility of filling Sato’s legendary boots could weigh heavily on his shoulders. New Brazilian Felipe Silva, meanwhile, is an unknown quantity.

Sanfrecce still have quality, but the squad has likely lost too much firepower to make a serious tilt at the title.

VISSEL KOBE

Last season: seventh

Vissel’s season begins away to Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday, but already fans will be looking ahead to the expected June 1 arrival of former Germany striker Lukas Podolski.

Vissel’s reported capture of World Cup-winner Podolski — as yet unconfirmed — was the story of the J. League offseason. Although his belated arrival has the potential to cause a distraction, a strong showing last year suggests the team may get on fine without him even if the deal ultimately fails to come to fruition.

Vissel did nothing of note in the first stage but came close to winning the second stage, finishing second only behind Urawa Reds. Striker Leandro, the league’s joint-top scorer with 19 goals last season, has been joined over the winter by several players with strong J. League pedigree, with forward Pedro Junior one of the few significant departures.

Of course turning promise into results has always been Vissel’s weakness, but Podolski is surely capable of changing the club’s fortunes. Diego Forlan’s unhappy experience with Cerezo Osaka three years ago proves big names are not always a guarantee of success, but Podolski is still only 31 and has the potential to take the league by storm, assuming he does indeed arrive.

It could all end in tears, but if everything clicks, Vissel could be dark horses for the title.

KASHIWA REYSOL

Last season: eighth

Kashiwa looked set for a season of struggle last year when new manager Milton Mendes walked out after just three games with the team in the relegation zone.

But replacement Takahiro Shimotaira did an excellent job in turning the Chiba club’s campaign around, building a vibrant young team that improved as the season went on and made a decent fist of challenging for the second-stage title.

Comparatively little transfer activity over the offseason means Reysol can expect that development to continue, although the departure of fullback Ryosuke Yamanaka to Yokohama F. Marinos is probably one that Shimotaira could have done without.

Reysol’s strength last season lay with a busy midfield creating chances for Brazilian strikers Cristiano and Diego Oliveira, and the team’s attacking options have been further strengthened by the arrival of Ramon Lopes from Vegalta Sendai.

Inexperience will be an issue for a team whose average age hovered around the mid-20s last season, but old heads such as Hidekazu Otani and Ryoichi Kurisawa remain, even if 2011 J. League title winners Junya Tanaka and Tatsuya Masushima have left.

Reysol’s season could go either way, but Shimotaira should be quietly confident of another positive campaign.

FC TOKYO

Last season: ninth

Tokyo’s stumble through a thoroughly mediocre campaign last year was hardly the stuff to whet appetites for the 2017 season, but a productive winter in the transfer market has the potential to radically change the team’s fortunes.

Tokyo pulled off two of the most eye-catching domestic deals of the offseason by bringing in all-time J. League top scorer Yoshito Okubo from Kawasaki Frontale and sometime Japan international Kensuke Nagai from relegated Nagoya Grampus, completely retooling the team’s attack in the process.

Okubo may not thrive as much as he did at Frontale without playmaker Kengo Nakamura feeding him chances, but the 34-year-old is as near a guarantee of goals as it is possible to get in the J. League. Nagai has lost his way somewhat since bursting onto the scene with Grampus in 2011, but the striker is still only 27 and clearly has talent despite his inconsistency.

Tokyo will certainly need to score goals after managing to find the net only 39 times last season. There remains a suspicion that the team still lacks a midfielder with the creative vision to shape the bullets for the new strikers to fire, but the arrival of Yojiro Takahagi and the return of raiding left back Kosuke Ota from the Netherlands is at least a step in the right direction.

Tokyo may fall short of a genuine title challenge this time, but an improvement on last year’s showing looks highly likely.