Renofa riding high

Renofa Yamaguchi only narrowly avoided relegation last year, but they have been one of the fastest out of the traps in J2 this season and are showing no signs of letting up just yet… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 13th April, 2018

The J2 table is looking a little unusual after the first fifth of the season, with none of last season’s three relegated J1 sides starting at all well and the early pacesetters far from the usual suspects.

Albirex Niigata sit in 11th place after eight rounds of matches and have won just three league games – losing three of their last four – but are the best performing of the teams to have dropped through the trapdoor, with Ventforet Kofu and Omiya Ardija having only managed two wins apiece and lying 13th and 18th, respectively.

It is instead Fagiano Okayama, who finished 13th last season, leading the way on 19 points, with Oita Trinita and, most surprisingly, Renofa Yamaguchi following closely behind in second and third on 17.

Although Fagiano dropped off last season they are usually there or thereabouts in the top third of the table, while Oita also made a real challenge in that respect last year and were only ruled out of a play-off spot on the penultimate weekend. Renofa, however, had to wait until the last day of the 2017 season to absolutely guarantee their safety from relegation, and with a big turnover of players and inexperienced manager coming in in the form of former JFA Technical Director Masahiro Shimoda hopes weren’t especially high heading into this campaign.

Renofa wiped the floor with Roasso Kumamoto 4-1 on the opening weekend though, before edging Ehime FC 1-0 the following week and then getting back amongst the goals with a 5-2 win away to newly-promoted Tochigi on 11 March.

Of course, none of those sides are heavyweights of the second tier either – although both Roasso and Ehime have beaten Albirex this season, while Roasso have also taken all three points from their games against Omiya and Tokushima Vortis – and it looked like the wheels may have fallen off for Renofa in Round 4 when they slumped to a 3-0 defeat away to Mito Hollyhock.

Conceding twice late on to draw 2-2 at home to Zweigen Kanazawa in their next match wasn’t the best way to follow that loss, but they turned the tables next time out by doing the same thing to Matsumoto Yamaga and then picking up a solid 1-0 away to Montedio Yamagata.

Their first real statement came last Saturday, however, as they defeated Omiya 2-1 at the Ishin Me-Life Stadium, thanks to goals from two of their standout players this year, Ado Onaiwu and Kosuke Onose.

Football Channel, Friday 13th April 2018

That energetic, positive, and assertive pair epitomise the approach of the team, and look like they have all the right credentials – along with the likes of Daisuke Takagi, Junya Osaki, and Keita Yamashita – to follow on from the players who helped lift the club up from the local leagues to J2.

Renofa burst into the second tier two years ago with a reputation for playing progressive, attacking football under Nobuhiro Ueno, having achieved back-to-back promotions from the Chugoku League, JFL, and then J3 in each of the previous three seasons.

They didn’t rein that approach in in their first J2 campaign, causing opponents all kinds of problems with Yoshihiro Shoji and Hidetoshi Miyuki pulling the strings in the centre of the park, Takaki Fukumitsu, Yatsunori Shimaya, and Kazuhito Kishida buzzing around in the final third, and Ryuta Koike tearing up and down the right flank as they finished 12th, nine places and 14 points above the relegation zone, claiming famous 4-2 wins over both JEF United and Cerezo Osaka in the process.

As is the way, however, several of those players were then snapped up by other clubs and last year Renofa struggled to adapt to the loss of Koike (Kashiwa Reysol), Shoji (FC Gifu, now Vegalta Sendai), Fukumitsu (Cerezo Osaka), and Shimaya (Tokushima Vortis), leading to the departure of Ueno after 15 matches with the team having won just twice all season, winless in six games, and lying 20th in the rankings.

Carlos Alberto Mayor was brought in to salvage the situation and just about pulled it off, but largely at the expense of the team’s style as they become more direct under the former Avispa Fukuoka defender.

It was perhaps for that reason that his contract wasn’t extended for the current campaign, and Shimoda was brought in promising to strive for football the fans enjoyed watching, adding that while winning games was of course the priority he didn’t want to place too much focus on getting all three points at the expense of playing entertaining football.

Things have started well on both fronts, but the true test of their mettle will come over the next four games, three of which are away from home.

That run starts in Fukuoka this weekend, after which Renofa are on the road again against unbeaten Machida Zelvia – another surprise package – host Albirex, and then travel to Kofu.

If they can come through that schedule with points in the bag and confidence intact then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to make themselves at home in the upper reaches of the table – and possibly even start dreaming of another promotion.


Halilhodzic given the heave-ho

For the second time in his career Vahid Halilhodzic has been fired on the eve of a World Cup finals, and while his dismissal has long been touted the JFA’s timing defies belief… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 10th April, 2018

Vahid Halilhodzic never looked entirely at home in the stiff confines of Japanese football, and his imminent departure was rumoured several times during the three years he spent at the helm of the national team.

Even so, it is hard to consider the Bosnian’s abrupt sacking just 71 days before the Samurai Blue’s World Cup opener against Colombia as anything other than shocking, and while the dismissal itself may be justifiable the timing of it is anything but.

Since booking their place in Russia with a mature and composed 2-0 win over Australia on 31 August last year Japan have undoubtedly regressed, but the opportunities to change the man in charge had already come and gone.

“Even if it increases our chances of winning at the World Cup by only one or two percent, we had to act,” president Kohzo Tashima was quoted as saying by The Japan Times when explaining the JFA’s decision and the choice of Akira Nishino as his replacement.

“We only have two months left until the World Cup, so the new manager had to come from within the organisation. If we had done this earlier we might not have chosen Nishino, but with only two months left, in this situation, we came to this decision.”

Which begs the question: why wasn’t the decision made earlier? Tashima indicated that the manner of the recent 1-1 draw with Mali and 2-1 loss to Ukraine were the straws that broke the camel’s back, but similar issues were also evident in the drab showings against New Zealand and Haiti last October, so why didn’t the axe fall then?

Friction always seemed likely with Halilhodzic from the start, with him enjoying a fractious relationship with the Algerian media despite guiding Les Fennecs to the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup and having been fired by Cote d’Ivoire ahead of the 2010 edition (which came 108 days before the team’s first match in South Africa – early compared to his latest sacking).

But, let’s be clear, that is surely why the JFA hire foreign coaches to lead the national team: to introduce aspects lacking in the domestic game. For the association to then panic when that approach ruffles a few feathers (in the squad, media, or amongst sponsors) and then push the panic button at the eleventh hour suggests a lack of a coherent plan, and a focus on short- rather than long-term goals.

Football Channel, Tuesday 10th April, 2018

That Halilhodzic hadn’t delivered the results expected of him or, indeed, that he himself had declared – he insisted when he took over, for instance, that his aim was to improve on Japan’s FIFA ranking of 55, yet three years down the line he exits with them in exactly the same spot – are undeniable, but waiting this long to pull the trigger makes very little sense, especially when considering how far along the team’s World Cup preparations were under the 65-year-old.

“Journalists, of course, like to hear about how we will apply pressure and attack and score a lot of goals – and maybe if I say that people will say I’m a good coach,” Halilhodzic told me in a recent interview looking ahead to the finals, in which he also expressed concerns about the number of players in Europe not getting regular minutes and hinted at leaving out “players who can be starters but not on the bench”.

We will play in a Japanese way,” he continued. “I am preparing a document about the identity of Japanese football, which I will give to every player. That will be based on our qualities and weak points to tell them what kind of football we will play. We cannot play football that we are not capable of.

“We have to decide what we are going to do when we have the ball and when we don’t. Set pieces, defensively, offensively – everything. Mental aspects. Physical aspects. I will prepare a document several pages long for every player based on my observations during the past three years. I am sure the team will know very clearly what the tactics are, but whether we can do these things on the pitch or not is another matter. The arrangement is one thing and its realisation another.”

That document won’t be getting made now, and whether Japan could have realised what Halilhodzic envisioned will never be known as, 10 weeks before the World Cup finals, the arrangements must start anew.


Friendly Advice

Japan’s recent friendlies against Mali and Ukraine were the latest in some fairly uninspiring displays, and performances need to improve fast if the Samurai Blue want to make any kind of impression at the World Cup… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 30th March, 2018

Defeats and poor performances in friendly games can often be swept aside as unimportant, with regulars left out and fringe players given chances to show what they can do.

If looked at even more optimistically, these matches can be taken as vital learning experiences which help a side discover weaknesses to work on further down the line.

The problem with Japan’s loss to Ukraine on Tuesday, however, is that the issues identified have been present for a long time and no quick fixes appear available – which is concerning as, as of full time in Liege, the World Cup is just 84 days away (less as you read this).

Defensively the team lacked any real solidity at Stade Maurice Dufrasne, with Ukraine able to break through seemingly at will whenever they felt the need and support players from deep frequently arriving in acres of space and with time to pick their pass or shot.

This was in large part down Maya Yoshida’s injury – with the 29-year-old’s absence further highlighting how vital he is to this team.

None of Tomoaki Makino – who now seems Vahid Halilhodzic’s preference to partner Yoshida when everyone is fit, having played 90 minutes in both friendlies – Gen Shoji, or Naomichi Ueda had especially bad games in Belgium, but the backline was far from regimented without the Southampton man marshaling it, and the ball was given away cheaply far too often as the team tried to play its way out of defence.

Another absentee from the back four was also badly missed, with the erratic displays of Tomoya Ugajin – booked, conceded a penalty, substituted at half time versus Mali – and Gotoku Sakai – frequently targeted by Ukraine’s forwards, almost scored an own goal, struggled to get involved in the team’s attacks – highlighting just how good Hiroki Sakai has been of late.

The Marseille man not only provides a solid shield on the right flank, but his desire to tear forward and support the team’s approach play – as well as often being the one to instigate it – was severely lacking in these games, with the connections between defence and midfield and midfield and attack not impressive at all.

Indeed, that situation will be worrying Halilhodzic, particularly in the centre of the park where Makoto Hasebe was uncharacteristically loose, Hotaru Yamaguchi struggled to impose himself, and neither Ryota Morioka or Gaku Shibasaki made strong claims to be given the freer role in the middle.

Football Channel : Getty Friday 30th March, 2018

Until recently that position looked like it was Yosuke Ideguchi’s to lose, before he transferred to Leeds, was subsequently loaned to Cultural Leonessa – where he hasn’t played since mid-February – and, well, lost it.

The lack of that link between the middle of the park and the decisive final third is perhaps the matter of gravest concern as June 19th’s opener against Colombia draws closer. If Japan struggles to move the ball efficiently and create chances against steady but far from spectacular opposition such as Mali and Ukraine, how will they cope against stronger opponents when the stakes are far higher in Saransk, Ekaterinburg, and Volgograd?

It is here that Halilhodzic must shoulder some of the blame, with the Bosnian having spent the six months since Japan qualified for the finals constantly shuffling his pack and trying a host of different options, especially in the front three positions.

Nine different players have started up front for the Samurai Blue in that time (not including the EAFF E-1 Championship), and while Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Kubo, and Yuya Osako appear to remain the preferred trio none of them have done much to justify that status of late – with Osako’s penalty against New Zealand on October 6th the last time one of them found the net.

Haraguchi’s embarrassing attempt to try and win a penalty against Ukraine epitomised the current situation, suggesting the players are struggling to discover effective ways of breaking down resilient defences and letting the frustration produced by that malaise get the better of them.

All is not lost, and with the likes of Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yoshinori Muto, and Takashi Inui all still very much in the frame there are players capable of adding that something extra to the side before it’s too late.

The time for testing and tweaking is drawing to a close, though, and Halilhodzic needs to settle on his preferred options and give them the opportunities and freedom to foster some understanding.

In turn, the players trusted with the eleven starting shirts need to do better, because if recent performances continue into the World Cup it is difficult to see Japan improving on their meek showing in Brazil four years ago.


Sendai soaring

Vegalta Sendai have matched their perfect start from last year with back-to-back 1-0 wins in J1, and the players are keen to show they are a tougher proposition this season… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 9th March, 2018

The J1 season is only two games old, but not many people would have predicted the only three teams to still have perfect records at this point.

Last year’s play-off winners Nagoya Grampus have re-adjusted to life in the top flight superbly by beating Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata; Sanfrecce Hiroshima – who only survived relegation by the skin of their teeth last season – have six points thanks to victories over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Urawa Reds; while Vegalta Sendai are also riding high thanks to back-to-back 1-0s at the expense of Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo.

Vegalta actually got off to an identical start in 2017 – winning 1-0 at home to Sapporo on the opening weekend before following up with a 1-0 victory on the road to Jubilo – but they were then derailed on the third matchday when they lost 2-0 at home to Vissel Kobe, who will coincidentally be the visitors to Yurtec Stadium this Saturday.

“Last year we won the first two games but in the end we finished up where we did in the table [12th], so we know we can’t just be satisfied with what we’ve done so far and we want to do our best to show how we are different from last season,” Naoki Ishihara said after scoring the winner against Tokyo last weekend.

“Last season there were times when we weren’t able to get the second goal, didn’t use time smartly, or made mistakes when it came to closing games down and I think we have learned from that,” the 33-year-old added.

“We all have a feeling of not wanting to repeat the things we experienced last year, and I think the fact we have been able to win and keep clean sheets in both games so far shows that.”

Defensive solidity has always been a by-word for the way Sendai play, and Yasuhiro Hiraoka made it clear that the principle remains the first building block for Susumu Watanabe’s team this year.

“For us at the back that’s the main target [to keep a clean sheet], and we know that if we are able to keep doing that then we will pick up the points slowly but surely,” the former Shimizu S-Pulse man said.

However, after they lost their way a little after a strong start in 2017 Hiraoka also knows the team can’t afford to just sit back and rest on their laurels.

Football Channel, Saturday 10th March 2018

“Last year we were in the same position [after two games] and so we are aware that what happens from now is vital. This has no meaning if we aren’t able to take advantage of it in the next game.”

That hesitancy to relax is true of the team’s approach on the pitch too, and Katsuya Nagato insisted that once the foundations are in place the players want to take games to opponents as well.

“At half time [against Tokyo] we had a real drive to take the initiative and go for the win,” the Chiba native said.

“I think the fact we were able to do that here was great, and we want to keep playing in that way to make sure we are able to see out wins in similar games to this from now on too.

“As a team I think we are moving the ball better and the connections when building attacks are mostly working well. Last year it was a bit of a case of trial and error as we worked at keeping the opponents at bay, and while this year there have also been spells where we have had to persevere I think we are demonstrating the kind of football we want to play too.

“We can’t just be content with winning 1-0 though, and want to start making it 2- or 3-0 at an earlier point in games. The sooner we can do that the sooner we will be able to see games out more easily.”

The team has already gotten one monkey off its back this season, with last weekend’s win the first time they took all three points from a trip to Ajinomoto Stadium, and Ishihara thinks that achievement will give Vegalta added confidence as they look to win three league games in a row for the first time since June 2016.

“The coach mentioned that before the game [that they’d never beaten Tokyo away in the league]. We can’t do anything about past results but we spoke about changing that history, about the fact that we can change the future, and I’m pleased we were able to do so by winning here.”

The next challenge comes this weekend, when Sendai will be looking to avenge last season’s defeat to Kobe and show they are a stronger proposition this time around.


Missing out motivates Misao

Kashima Antlers suffered a rare season without a trophy last year, and Kento Misao is determined not to miss out again in 2018… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 22nd February, 2018

On paper 2017 was a superb year for Kento Misao as, still only 21, he became a first choice at Kashima Antlers and also made his national team debut at the EAFF E-1 Championship in December.

However, that appearance unfortunately came in the 4-1 hammering by South Korea – albeit as a second half substitute when the game was already long since lost – while his club campaign also ended sourly with Antlers stumbling on the run in and letting the J1 title slip through their grasp.

Misao described the feeling at full time on the last day of the season as one he will never forget, but the Tokyo Verdy youth team product is now determined to use that disappointment as fuel to ensure success this season.

“We all have a lot of regret about that,” he said with regards to the 0-0 draw away to Jubilo Iwata that gifted last year’s championship to Kawasaki Frontale. “But we have a really strong feeling of doing it this year, and I think that will come out in our play. As a team we have a real focus on doing that.

“I think you really develop by winning titles, but the same is also true of the regret you feel when you don’t win. So now we have the opportunity to step up.”

Such a mature approach is characteristic of a player wise beyond his years, something also evident when he talks about the time it took for him to gain regular minutes in the Kashima midfield.

“I feel like maybe it took longer than I’d hoped,” he says. “I came here with a focus on playing in my first year.”

With players of the quality of Gaku Shibasaki, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Ryota Nagaki, and current midfield partner Leo Silva challenging for starts since he signed at the start of the 2016 season, however, it is perhaps unsurprising Misao was made to wait, and he concedes it was probably for the best that he had to work for his chance – which finally came when Go Oiwa replaced Masatada Ishii midway through last season and immediately installed him in the centre of the park.

“I guess if you look at the results the timing worked out well. I don’t really think about it too much though. When playing in games I just have a real responsibility, I feel that every time.”

Of course, at Japan’s most successful club there is no shortage of players willing to stand up and be counted, and they’ll have another this year thanks to the return of Atsuto Uchida.

“We’ve brought in players out wide so there’s a new feeling,” Misao said.

Football Channel, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

“Uchida has been playing in Germany for a long time and he’s a player we know we can rely on.

“You can see he has the standard quality demanded in Germany – pass speed, battling for possession, sliding tackles. He’s teaching me all the things that are required – kind of like ‘the world level is like this’ – and I’m aiming to play at that level so being able to know those things is really beneficial and serves as motivation to me. We’ve spoken about all sorts of things, he’s a really good person.”

Another player who’s arrived at full-back is Misao’s former teammate at Verdy, Koki Anzai. The 22-year-old was excellent last season as Miguel Angel Lotina’s side made it to the J2 Play-offs, posing a real threat in the final third and adding goals and assists to his game, and Misao thinks he will provide an extra option for Antlers this term.

“It’s been three years since we were in the same team and it was good fun playing with him,” he said of the reunion. “He’s more of a dribbler who tries to break through now and I think he’s really developed.”

It looks as though Anzai will challenge with Misao’s brother, Yuto, to try and unseat Shuto Yamamoto as first choice left back.

Yuto had a similarly frustrating first season in Ibaraki to his younger brother after joining from Shonan Bellmare last year, but based on his own experience Kento remains convinced an opportunity will come.

“Yuto is getting better and I think he’ll have a chance,” he said. “If he can do well when he plays in games then he can build on that.”

Another player Misao expects to impress this year is Yuma Suzuki.

The Chiba native struggled a little in 2017 – finding the net just six times in 26 league appearances – but is singled out as the potential difference maker for Antlers this season.

“I think he can score around 20 goals,” Misao said of the player just 10 days younger than himself.

“I think he has the most potential to score goals. If he can do well and score a lot then the team can become really strong.”

In the end Kashima only missed out on the title by a single goal last season, and it is clear that Misao is resolved to make up for that this year.


Cerezo set to challenge again

Cerezo Osaka broke their title jinx last year, winning the Levain and Emperor’s Cups. Their showing in the Super Cup last weekend suggests Yoon Jong-hwan’s side will be in the hunt for silverware in 2018 as well… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th February, 2018

After Cerezo Osaka beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 to win the Levain Cup last November coach Yoon Jong-hwan said he felt they could become a “team to be feared”, and the past three months have done nothing to cast any doubt on that assertion.

Cerezo started 2018 with another triumph, beating Yokohama F.Marinos 2-1 after extra time in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, and after a steady winter during which they lost no key players and signed some solid options to boost the squad they hit the ground running this past weekend with another win over Frontale, this time 3-2 in the Super Cup.

That made it three trophies from their last three visits to Saitama Stadium, and after the game Matej Jonjic made it clear that now the club has shaken off its ‘nearly’ tag the target is to add more silverware this season.

“We want to aim for another title this year because we know we can do it,” the Croatian said.

“[The Levain Cup] definitely gave us confidence and showed us that we can win a title. We won another one after that and feel full of confidence and are taking that into each game.”

They certainly started Saturday’s Super Cup slickly, seizing the initiative ahead of reigning J1 champions Frontale early on, with Hiroshi Kiyotake, Kota Mizunuma, Yoichiro Kakitani, and Kenyu Sugimoto looking especially self-assured.

“I didn’t expect we were going to attack, that we were going to put pressure,” Jonjic admitted of the team’s burst out of the gate in a game usually characterised by rusty performances as teams get back into the flow after a couple of months off.

“They are really good when they have confidence,” he added of the team’s front four. “They are really good players and they can damage every team.”

Kiyotake also paid reference to the unexpected ease with which he slipped into the season’s curtain-raiser.

“I wasn’t at all tired,” the 28-year-old said. “As a team we played very compactly and, for me personally, I played the same as always and also managed to get a goal. It was the ideal chance for me and I hope there are many more scenes like that to come this year.”

Keeping things compact has always been the overriding principal for Yoon’s teams, and nothing will change as he looks to steer Cerezo to more glory this season.

“We struggled in the second half of the season and couldn’t keep a clean sheet but we kept winning because we had a good offence, we scored three or four goals, which was a good thing,” Jonjic said of the side’s finish to the 2017 campaign.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

“But now in pre-season we have been working on our defending as a team, as a unit together – we have to stay compact and defend all together.

“We started with that last season, we started well with something like eight clean sheets in 10 games [actually six in eight including the Levain Cup], and after that we felt we could attack a little bit more so things became a little bit disorganized. We have to get the balance. In our team we are saying all the time that the base is defending together with 11 players behind the ball, so we have to start from that. Today [the forwards] did a really good job, they helped the defence a lot. Even 30 meters from our goal they were defending and tackling, which was really good, really helpful for us.”

That effort didn’t go unnoticed by Kiyotake either, and he was full of praise for the manner in which the team defended from the front.

“Yoichiro and Kenyu put in a lot of effort to keep an eye on Kawasaki’s defensive midfielders, which made things much easier for us,” he said. “I think it will be good if we can take this as our base.”

Of course, with so much attacking talent packed into the squad Cerezo – who were second-highest scorers in J1 after Frontale last year with 65 goals – won’t just be aiming to play reactively and will still cause opponents plenty of problems in the final third themselves.

“Kenyu and Yoichiro combined well, Yang (Dong-hyen) gave us good variation after he came on, and Toshi(iyuki Takagi) got his goal, so I think everything’s in place for us to become a good team this year,” Kiyotake added.

“The season has only just started though and the real work starts from now so we can’t just be satisfied with this.”

Jonjic highlighted the extent of the team’s workload, pointing out that even before their J1 duties begin Cerezo have an away game against Jeju United in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday.

“Tomorrow morning, early morning, we fly to Jeju,” the 27-year-old said.

“It’s a tough schedule – a lot of games, a lot of tough games. It will be a tough season, we know it will not be smooth like last year because we have a lot of tough games, but we are preparing for that so we know what to expect.”

Opponents will know what they will be getting from Cerezo this year too, and it would be surprising if they are not in the mix to add to their trophy cabinet when the prizes are being dished out nine months from now.


Making moves

There has been the usual flurry of transfer activity over the J.League off-season, with reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale and promoted Nagoya Grampus making the biggest splashes in the market… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 25th January, 2018

With a month to go until the J.League season gets underway there is still plenty of time for clubs to finalise their squads for the 2018 campaign.

Training camps and pre-season friendlies are already underway though – and, of course, Kashiwa Reysol have their Asian Champions League qualifier next week – so it looks like the bulk of the off-season transfer activity has been concluded.

From this it is possible to make some tentative early forecasts, with Kawasaki Frontale, Urawa Reds, and Nagoya Grampus’ comings and goings particularly catching the eye.

Kawasaki are in unchartered waters as reigning champions, but the club certainly haven’t messed about in following the adage that you need to strengthen even when at your strongest.

Any other year the return of Yoshito Okubo after a difficult season across the Tama River at FC Tokyo would be the standout acquisition, but the capture of Manabu Saito from Yokohama F.Marinos ensures Okubo will have to settle for a supporting role – both in terms of headlines and, perhaps, when it comes to getting game time over the next 12 months.

Signing the captain of a local rival would be a sensational coup in its own right, but when that player is a youth product who assumed the No.10 shirt from a club legend just a year ago the move looks even more audacious.

While undoubtedly a smart piece of business Saito doesn’t immediately look a natural fit for Frontale’s intricate style of play though, lacking the delicate touch and finesse Toru Oniki demands of his players. What he will bring, however, is an explosiveness and electricity, and it is perhaps this unpredictability that the 27-year-old has been recruited to add to the side’s attacks.

Okubo will also contribute in that way, but with him turning 36 in June it would be surprising if he plays as central a role as he did before leaving Todoroki at the end of the 2016 season.

While the fan favourite’s decision to hop across town to Ajinomoto Stadium was something of a surprise, overall it looked like a sensible decision for both him and the club, and Kawasaki certainly didn’t miss him last season as they picked up their first ever piece of silverware with Yu Kobayashi thriving as the main man up front.

Indeed, despite picking up three consecutive top scorer awards between 2013-15, Okubo has not always been a prolific goal scorer, and those emphatic seasons were preceded by four in which he failed to get into double figures – as was also the case last year when he netted just eight times for Tokyo.

Even so, adding a player of his quality to the squad can only be seen as a positive for Frontale as they look not only to defend their title but also improve upon their quarter-final finish in last season’s Asian Champions League.

Football Channel, 26th January, 2018

It was Urawa who knocked them out at that stage on route to winning the continental showpiece, and at the turn of the year the champions of Asia looked to have everything in order to make a meaningful assault on the title they really want, the J1 crown.

Having finished seventh last year Reds won’t have the chance to defend their ACL title, but that gives them the opportunity to focus solely on domestic issues, for which they seemed well equipped after the steady acquisitions of Takuya Iwanami, Kosuke Taketomi, and Quenten Martinus – as well as the return of Naoki Yamada from his loan at Shonan Bellmare.

Takafumi Hori’s side suffered a critical blow at the start of their pre-season training camp, however, as Wuhan Zall matched the buyout clause in Rafael Silva’s contract to take the Brazilian to the Chinese second division.

The 25-year-old was the difference between success and failure for Reds last year, so often coming up with a moment of magic or lethal finishing to decide a game in his side’s favour – not least when finding the net in each of their last three ACL games, including that emphatic strike in the second leg of the final – and losing him leaves the club with a massive hole to fill and not much time to find a suitable replacement.

How they must wish they had known of Wuhan’s intent a little sooner, as they could perhaps have tried to scupper Nagoya’s efforts to sign former CSKA Moscow and Manchester City striker Jo from Corinthians.

The 30-year-old was joint top scorer in the Brazilian Serie A last year, registering 18 times as his club claimed their seventh league title, and he has the potential to take the J.League by storm this year.

Defensively, in true Yahiro Kazama style, Nagoya look rather vulnerable, but going forward they have an abundance of riches, with the combination of Jo and Gabriel Xavier a terrifying prospect for defenders around the country. With them leading the charge Grampus may even fancy their chances of replicating the success of Kashiwa (2011) and Gamba Osaka (2014), who won the first division immediately after returning from J2.

Cerezo Osaka also made an impact in their first season back in J1 after promotion last year, winning a Levain and Emperor’s Cup double, and it looks as though Yoon Jong-hwan is happy with the bulk of the squad that achieved that success, recruiting just a couple of options to add depth.

The same is also true of Kashima Antlers – who let’s not forget were just a single goal on the final day of the season away from becoming champions last year – while Reysol have equally opted for steady reinforcements to bolster their strength in depth as they look to do battle both at home and in Asia.

It’s far too soon to be making any meaningful predictions, but looking at the current lie of the land this half-dozen clubs look the best prepared to challenge for glory in 2018.

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April 2018
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