The arrival of Diego Forlan has seen Cerezo Osaka installed as the favourites for the 2014 J1 title, but plenty of other sides – including two-time defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima – also have their sights set on the championship…
Sanfrecce Hiroshima is heading into the 2014 J.League season looking for a third consecutive division one title, but coach Hajime Moriyasu knows his side must improve on last year’s showing if it is to taste victory again.
The Purple Archers successfully defended their crown on the final day of last season, but the triumph was as much down to Yokohama F Marinos’ late collapse as it was Hiroshima’s own efforts.
Sanfrecce lost nine games in the league in 2013 — the most of any champion since Gamba Osaka lost 10 times in 2005 — and Moriyasu is keen to arrest a worrying trend.
“In 2012 we lost eight games and last year it was nine. We were able to seize the title but the number of defeats has to decrease,” the 45-year-old said at last week’s ‘Kick Off Conference’.
“On the other hand, the battle for the title in the J.league is not like the top leagues overseas where only a limited number of teams fight for the top and the rest are divided into the middle and the bottom,” he added.
One side which does look to be a cut above this year, however, is Sanfrecce’s opponent in today’s season-opener, Cerezo Osaka.
As well as managing to keep hold of young stars like Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takahiro Ogihara Cerezo have signed Uruguayan star Diego Forlan, and Moriyasu is relishing the mouth-watering start to the season.
“I’m delighted that we will be playing in amongst all the attention generated by the arrival of such a top drawer player as Forlan,” he said.
“Cerezo also have a lot of very talented young players and are a good team, and with all that in mind I’m really looking forward to the game.”
The team is also what new Cerezo boss Ranko Popovic is focusing on.
“Diego is amazing but if we’re waiting for everything from Diego it’s wrong because we have other players,” he said at the season launch. “Football is a team sport and [about] teamwork and we have to work like a team.
“He’s come here to do his best and I saw in his eyes the fire for playing, the fire to [achieve] something and for competition, and this is what we need because without Forlan we are a really young team.”
Indeed, 24-year-old Kakitani is a full decade younger than his new strike partner and he knows he and his teammates must gear themselves towards getting the best out of their new prized asset.
“As well as me making a good combination with him the key point is how the team can make the best use of Diego Forlan as a player,” the Japan star said.
Rival players are also excited at the arrival of the former Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, and Interacional striker.
“For me to fight on the same pitch as him I can gain many things,” Kashiwa Reysol’s Masato Kudo told The Japan News. “His hassling and shooting ability will be great study for me.”
2011 champion Reysol finished a disappointing 10th in 2013 but could be a dark horse this year, with Kudo aiming for the title and to challenge Forlan in the scoring charts.
“Every year my tally has gone up so this year I want more than 20 [goals]. If I score then the league title will come closer so I’ll do my best.”
Another team looking to get closer to the title is Marinos.
The Kanagawa side needed just one win from its final two games to be crowned champion last year but lost both, and coach Yasuhiro Higuchi hopes his players can bounce back, buoyed by a consolation victory over Sanfrecce in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day.
“That disappointment will serve as this year’s motivation,” he told The Japan News. “Thee Emperor’s Cup triumph is one thing to give us confidence, but the disappointment of coming second in the league will be the spring for us.”
The aim of winning the league is not just a symbolic one for Higuchi, and he has a concrete target in mind to secure the J1 shield.
“I think 68 points,” the 52-year-old said. “Two-thirds of the points available. We have to go into every league game with an awareness of that fact.”
Gamba Osaka coach Kenta Hasegawa isn’t leaving anything to chance though and has set a slightly higher barometer of 70 points for his side.
Gamba is returning to the top flight after a year in J2, but the former Shimizu S-Pulse boss has no plans to wait around for success. He certainly needs his team to hit the ground running as they, too, have a huge opening match today, at home to old rivals Urawa Reds.
“It’s the ‘Japan Derby’, I think. I want to create proper history worthy of that name,” he told The Japan News. “There’s a lot of history to the fixture and I want to create new history from now on.”
His opposite number, Mihailo Petrovic, agreed with that assessment and similarly has points on the brain.
“Hiroshima got 64 points in 2012 and 63 in 2013 so we know roughly what the line is to get the title,” he said.
Urawa’s coach feels that Forlan’s arrival has installed Cerezo as the clear favorite for the championship.
“Cerezo are separated from the other teams going for the title. They’ve spent big money to capture a really big player, and recently J.League clubs haven’t done that.”
Popovic, however, dismissed the suggestion that the rest of the division is only playing for second place.
“This is not so. We have to demonstrate [why we are favorite]. This is what we have to do first. To relieve this pressure and concentrate on our game.”
Even so, he believes a first championship for Cerezo is a realistic possibility.
“If we don’t think so why are we playing? Why?” he said. “We have to look for our chance, like everybody [else]. We want to fight for the top.”