Ahead of the new J.League season I provided The Japan News with a preview focusing on the main challengers for glory this year…
The 2016 J.League season kicks off on Saturday, with a smattering of teams plotting to knock Sanfrecce Hiroshima off its perch as Japan’s No.1 team.
The Purple Archers claimed their third J1 crown in four seasons last year, holding off Urawa Reds throughout the course of the regular two-stage season, then defeating 2014 champion Gamba Osaka in a thrilling playoff final.
Ahead of the new campaign, Sanfrecce coach Hajime Moriyasu cut a relaxed and confident figure, and insisted that he and his players know exactly what is expected of them to achieve more success.
“We’re not a big club but we have shown that if we become one as a team and a club, and if we are organized and fight together then we can achieve results,” the 47-year-old said.
“Saying we are not a big club is not being self-deprecating or looking down on ourselves, but is with regards to comparing budgets,” he continued.
“However, Sanfrecce has a concept and philosophy which has been passed down over the years and which we’re proud of. That is tied up with us winning championships and I want to continue that with pride.”
While the champion will abide by an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-try-to-fix-it policy, the chasing pack know that adjustments need to be made.
“In all honesty I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and maybe I’ll only know the answer after we’ve won,” Urawa playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi said when asked what his side – runners-up in the overall league standings for the past two years and also defeated Emperor’s Cup finalists last season – need to add to take that final step to glory.
“We always try to play with enjoyment and with smiles on our faces when the big games come around, but maybe sometimes it would actually be better for us to let the mood drop a little and embrace that feeling of tension.
“Of course winning by playing good football is the absolute ideal, but if you don’t win then it doesn’t mean anything. Perhaps we have to start doing whatever is necessary in order to win those games. It’s great if we are able to play good football, but maybe we shouldn’t try to force it.”
FC Tokyo narrowly missed out on a playoff spot last season, and responded by replacing Massimo Ficcadenti with former coach Hiroshi Jofuku. He is intent on fine-tuning an already well-drilled machine to try and get it past the chequered flag in first.
“In order to establish a style you have to dedicate time and you have to produce results,” the 54-year-old, returning to Ajinomoto Stadium after five years, said. “To produce results while pursuing that style you have to make sure that over the course of the year you don’t waver in your aim.
“Make no mistake, results are the first priority. When it comes to the way we play, we have to be adaptable to overcome the opponent in front of us. Sometimes it will be the case that we need to play reactively in order to win games, but over the course of the year we are aiming to win more matches through our own proactivity.”
Altering slight nuances is also the order of the day for Gamba Osaka, which won a domestic treble in 2014 and took the defense of its crowns right to the wire last season.
Kenta Hasegawa’s side lost to Sanfrecce in the J1 playoff final and Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup final, but managed to keep hold of the Emperor’s Cup, beating Reds 2-1 on New Year’s Day.
Gamba also lost in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League in 2015, and centerback Keisuke Iwashita is keen to improve upon that this year. He thinks some shrewd activity in the transfer market will help in that aim.
“[Jungo] Fujimoto and Ademilson bring things that we haven’t had before, and I think they will add a good accent to the team,” he told The Japan News ahead of the season.
“The coach really instills a determined spirit into the team. This year we are focused on continuing in that way, and in particular to try and take the title in the ACL.
“We’ve got our new stadium and I think it would be perfect to mark the first year there by winning the title.”
Gamba was the last J.League club to be crowned as Asian champion, but that was eight years ago now, and with Chinese clubs making headlines around the world as they splash the cash on global stars the competition is not getting any easier.
“There is a big feeling in the team of wanting to win the ACL, but we also have a real desire to win the J.league,” Urawa’s Kashiwagi said.
“It’s really important for the club to win a title now, and it’s a case of setting our sights accordingly. Of course we want to win everything, but as a team perhaps we have to decide which one takes priority.”
Sanfrecce, meanwhile, has never made it beyond the last 16 of the continental showpiece, although Moriyasu believes he and his players have learned from their three previous attempts.
“At the pre-season camps I’ve sensed that the players have become tougher,” he said. “It’s tough in the ACL and we have to play ‘fighting soccer’ or ‘battling soccer’ if we want to achieve results.”
Moriyasu estimated that reigning Asian champion Guangzhou Evergrande has a budget 20 times that of Sanfrecce’s, but feels his team can take heart from its 2-1 victory over Luis Felipe Scolari’s side in the third-place playoff at last December’s Club World Cup.
“For Sanfrecce the fact we were able to beat them gives us confidence as it shows you can gain results by sticking to your style. Of course we have good players, too, but if we have better organization and stick to our gameplan then that can lead to results.”
There may be something of a revolution happening elsewhere in Asia, then, but for J.League clubs in 2016 – domestically as well as in continental competition – it will be more a process of evolution in the search for glory.