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If last year was the J. League’s season of uncertainty, this year will be its season of chaos.

A scant two months and change after its coronavirus-struck 2020 campaign finally came to a close, the 2021 edition will kick off on Feb. 26 with far more at stake than ever before in the 20-team first division.

The J1’s largest-ever field expanded from 18 after officials nixed relegation due to the impact of the pandemic, and it will return to that figure next year after completing this season’s supersized 38-round schedule.

With league officials deciding against a promotion-relegation playoff in the name of simplicity, all of that adds up to a four-spot relegation zone — the biggest in J. League history.

That means even if there’s another runaway team at the top of the table there will be plenty to watch at the bottom as strugglers and newcomers alike fight to stay alive.

“Coming from J2 to the J1, the level of contact play goes up, and it’s not easy to avoid losing at that level,” Tokushima Vortis head coach Takeshi Komoto said. “Most of our new players are young and their understanding of our tactics is progressing. We want to avoid relegation and finish as high as possible.”

One team considered a strong candidate for the drop this year will be Vegalta Sendai, who finished last season in 17th place with the league’s second-worst defense (61 goals allowed) and worst goal difference (minus 25).

The Tohoku side, which transferred control of its women’s team to sponsor Mynavi as part of efforts to mitigate the impact of nearly $7 million in losses caused by the pandemic, has brought back a familiar face in manager Makoto Teguramori.

Vegalta has welcomed back manager Makoto Teguramori, who led the team from 2008-13. | VEGALTA SENDAI / VIA KYODO
Vegalta has welcomed back manager Makoto Teguramori, who led the team from 2008-13. | VEGALTA SENDAI / VIA KYODO

The former Japan U-23 head coach led Sendai to its memorable fourth-place run in 2011 as well as its runner-up finish the following year, lifting local spirits in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Speaking to TV Tokyo, he emphasized that the club’s 2021 slogan, “standing together revival,” is intended to serve as a unifying call to fans and players.

“Last year was extremely difficult between our results, the club’s financial struggles and scandals involving our players,” Teguramori told TV Tokyo last week. “But in this 10th year since the disaster, we have to be a light of hope. It’s times like that when everyone needs to join hands and stand together.

“I think there were supporters who drifted away from us last season, and in order to bring those fans back and shine a light on the disaster area we decided on this slogan.”

Can anyone chase down Frontale?

On the pitch, the question on everyone’s mind is whether any team is capable of catching up to Kawasaki Frontale, who smashed several records while running away with the J1 title last season.

After setting new high marks for points (83), goals (88), goal difference (57), wins (26) and consecutive wins (12), it’s no surprise that Toru Oniki’s squad — largely unchanged at its core save for the retirement of veteran Kengo Nakamura, the departure of midfielder Hidemasa Morita and the arrival of his replacement Joao Schmidt — will start the season with a trophy-shaped target on their back.

“It’s not a simple thing to explain how to stop them,” FC Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said. “It depends on their condition and that of their opponents. We have to look at the situation and decide how we want to play, but if we can’t overcome them we can’t win the league.”

Last year's Levain Cup winner FC Tokyo will be gunning for their first league title. | KYODO
Last year’s Levain Cup winner FC Tokyo will be gunning for their first league title. | KYODO

Despite losing both of their league games to Frontale, Tokyo did beat their Tamagawa Clasico rival in the Levain Cup semifinals on the way to securing the club’s first silverware in a decade on Jan. 3.

“We have to keep playing our game and avoid giving them too much respect,” said Tokyo defender Shuto Abe. “We beat them in the Levain Cup semifinal and I have a good image of playing them, but we’ll need more than we had last year to win.”

Gamba Osaka, which finished runner-up to Frontale in the J1, Emperor’s Cup and last weekend’s Super Cup, is perhaps in the best position to deprive Kawasaki of its fourth title — and bring a third to Panasonic Stadium Suita in the process.

“It’s important for us to keep playing (aggressively),” Gamba midfielder Shinya Yajima said after Saturday’s Super Cup. “Frontale played possession soccer last year and (2019 champion) Yokohama F. Marinos the year before. Last year we played defensively and attacked on the counter, but now we’re doing the opposite.

“Today we showed how we’re capable of playing against Kawasaki. I feel like I’m capable of doing even more than I did last year.”

VAR returns, concussion subs added

The league’s 2021 regulations reflect the impact that COVID-19 continues to have on its operations, with teams, fans and media required to adhere to nearly 100 pages of safety guidelines.

Some changes put in place to mitigate the impact of last year’s schedule crunch, including the introduction of five substitutes and a water break during each half, will remain in place — though teams will be allowed to skip the water break on mutual agreement.

In addition to the five regular substitutions, teams will also have an additional “concussion substitute” available should a player suffer a head injury during play.

It’s hoped that the new rule will make late-game incidents, in which players on teams that had already spent their substitutes refuse to leave the pitch following a head-to-head collision, a thing of the past.

The new rule saw its first application in Saturday’s Super Cup, when an unsteady Koki Tsukagawa was replaced by Shintaro Kurumaya in the waning minutes of stoppage time.

“This was the first application of the new rule and thanks to the cooperation of the players and doctors the incident was handled well,” said Murai.

Video assistant referees — which were introduced in 2020 only to be scrapped due to safety and logistical concerns related to the pandemic — will also feature this season as officials look to protect the integrity of the relegation dogfight.

Unlike in European leagues, where its use to determine offside plays has drawn criticism from fans and commentators alike, VAR in the J. League will only be used to confirm goals, penalties, ejections and whether the correct player has been disciplined.

“We’re well aware that the result of one game or even a single decision will put us in the line of fire,” referee Ryuji Sato told reporters last week according to Soccer Digest.

While the J. League wasn’t forced to abandon any of its fixtures in 2020, league officials won’t be as forgiving this season. Teams unable to field the league-mandated minimum of 13 players due to COVID-19 infections could be forced to accept a 3-0 forfeit if their game can’t be rearranged.

Wait continues for foreigners

While the financial costs of the pandemic have kept J1 clubs from splashing on top-tier foreign stars such as Vissel Kobe captain Andres Iniesta, there have still been plenty of fascinating signings such as former Brazil U-20 striker Lincoln (Vissel), ex-Brazil center back Bruno Uvini (FC Tokyo), Kenyan striker Ismael Dunga (Sagan Tosu) and Vietnam goalkeeper Dang Van Lam (Cerezo Osaka).

Unfortunately, it’s still unclear when any of them will actually play in Japan, as their respective arrivals have been hampered by travel restrictions that have prevented new players from receiving work visas.

Tokushima head coach Takeshi Komoto will lead the team from the technical area until new Spanish manager Dani Poyatos is allowed to enter Japan. | KYODO
Tokushima head coach Takeshi Komoto will lead the team from the technical area until new Spanish manager Dani Poyatos is allowed to enter Japan. | KYODO

Even if visas are immediately issued once the current state of emergency ends on March 7, new arrivals will still likely undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine before joining training — making it a strong possibility that many won’t debut for their teams until at least early April’s Round 7 if not later.

Among those waiting to enter Japan are Tokushima Vortis manager Dani Poyatos, who has continued to guide the team’s preparations from Spain while head coach Komoto oversees the squad on the ground.

“We want to play so well that nobody knows our manager isn’t here,” Komoto said. “We’re having video meetings every day, and both our attack and defense are progressing smoothly.”

Eriko Yamakuma contributed to this report.

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