The 2018 J. League season kicks off with just one fixture on Friday, but every club in the 18-team division will get the chance to throw down the gauntlet to defending champions Kawasaki Frontale before the weekend is over.
Sagan Tosu host Vissel Kobe in Friday’s opener before four games each on Saturday and Sunday complete the first round of fixtures. Frontale travel to face Jubilo Iwata on Sunday afternoon, and captain Yu Kobayashi is raring to go after being named J. League player of the year last season and finishing as top scorer with 23 goals.
“I can really feel now that the season is about to start, and the first game is very important in terms of giving the team momentum,” said the 30-year-old, who scored a hat trick against Omiya Ardija on the final day last season to help Frontale clinch their first-ever title on goal difference ahead of the Kashima Antlers.
“The first objective is to win a major title. We have the players to do that.”
Frontale, who scored a league-high 71 goals last season, will again be a force to be reckoned with after acquiring forward Manabu Saito from Yokohama F. Marinos and bringing back striker Yoshito Okubo after a year at FC Tokyo.
“We’ve reinforced in attacking positions and hopefully we can score a lot more goals,” said Kobayashi.
The Antlers could have won a record ninth J. League title but instead contrived to blow a four-point lead with two games remaining. The Ibaraki club has responded by bringing back defender Atsuto Uchida after 7½ years in Germany, and manager Go Oiwa believes the 29-year-old can help galvanize the team after last season’s disappointment.
“He has already brought a lot to the team,” Oiwa said of Uchida, who has 71 caps for Japan. “His play and the way he carries himself off the pitch provide a big incentive for the players. He’s in really good shape. If he keeps going the way he’s going at the moment, of course he has a chance of getting into Japan’s World Cup squad.
“The players are still carrying a lot of frustration from last season. We want to get that out of our system by winning the J. League and the Asian Champions League. We can use it to our advantage.”
After winning the League Cup and Emperor’s Cup last season and finishing third in the J. League, Cerezo Osaka also look like strong contenders for the title. Yoon Jong-hwan’s side has lost influential playmaker Hiroshi Kiyotake to injury for the first six weeks of the season, but midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi believes last year’s cup success can act as a springboard to more silverware.
“Last year we were able to win titles and that was very important for the team,” said the 27-year-old. “It really brought out the players’ hunger to win more titles. That really showed in our results.
“We’ve become a team that can grind out results. We’ve become the kind of team that is able to turn a 0-0 draw into a win.”
Saitama heavyweights Urawa Reds finished seventh in the J. League last season but made up for that disappointment by winning the Asian Champions League. Urawa has lost the player whose goals played a big part in that triumph — Brazilian forward Rafael Silva, who left for China over the winter — but defender Tomoaki Makino is hoping the team can compensate at the other end of the pitch.
“The thing I’m most paying attention to this season is when the team is not doing well, that the defense is able to stick it out and transmit that mentality to the attackers,” Makino said. “We have to defend hard this season.”
Several teams are under new leadership, with former Australia manager Ange Postecoglou taking over at Yokohama F. Marinos, Kenta Hasegawa coming in at FC Tokyo and Jan Jonsson taking the helm at Shimizu S-Pulse.
“I prefer to be optimistic,” said Swede Jonsson, who led Sanfrecce Hiroshima to first-division survival last season. “We need to get better and better. Hopefully we can take steps and hopefully we can start well.”
Nagoya Grampus, champions in 2010, are back in the first division after securing promotion through last season’s playoffs, and made a splash in the transfer market by signing Brazilian World Cup striker Jo.
Grampus are joined in the top flight by J2 champions Shonan Bellmare and runners-up V-Varen Nagasaki, who will be competing in J1 for the first time.
“If you don’t build up a solid base first of all, everything shifts off balance,” said Nagasaki defender Ryota Takasugi. “We need to work hard and use the power we have as a team. If we can do that, we’ll be hard to beat.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5