Here we go again

The disruption caused by the coronavirus shows no signs of abating, but the J.League is proceeding with caution towards a new season. It looks like being another bumpy ride… (日本語版)

The 2020 J.League season was one of the most chaotic ever, with stresses aplenty on and off the pitch, and while the schedule hopefully won’t be as disrupted this year the early signs are that the going in 2021 is going to be just as bumpy for clubs, players, and fans alike.

The ACL clubs still don’t know where they’ll be playing their group stage games, for example, while tickets only went on sale for the Super Cup less than two weeks before the match and there remains a chance that one or both of Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka may have to be replaced if either has a coronavirus outbreak in the coming days.

Further to these unavoidable logistical issues, we also have the far from ideal fact that many clubs have been made to wait for their foreign players and staff to join up with the pre-season preparations – or, in the case of new acquisitions, are still waiting.

The success rate of overseas players in Japan is of course hit and miss – for every gem like Jesiel, Everaldo, and Mateus there have been twice as many Brazilian flops, for instance, while not all big name signings deliver performances relative to their eye-watering wages – but the initial adaptation process can be key to helping new arrivals find their feet, and having that set back at least two months must be causing plenty of headaches as Round 1 draws closer.

Add in the ongoing uncertainty about whether fans will be able to attend games – and if so how many, and what will they be allowed to do when they’re there? – and the increasing impact this is having on club budgets, and the longer-term ramifications of the pandemic continue to cast a worrying shadow over the operation and future of many, if not all, J.League clubs.

You have to wonder if the financial strain is behind Urawa Reds’ apparent intent to sell Leonardo to Shandong Taishan as well, with the Saitama giant surely one of those feeling a particular pinch on account of the attendance restrictions. Indeed, these concerns are present around the world, and at the start of February Swindon Town chairman Lee Power described the English League One club as being “on the brink” after they were forced to sell star forward Diallang Jaiyesimi to raise funds.

“I’m surprised we’ve got this far if I’m honest, with no supporters and no income since March,” he told BBC Radio Wiltshire. “It’s getting tougher and tougher and that’s where we are.

“It’s week-by-week, month-by-month. We’re on the rock face, hanging over the edge. To be honest, the last thing we want to do is sell our best players. But like I’ve said and stated since March last year, we’re in a national pandemic, we’ve had no supporters in the stadium, it’s been a fight morning, noon, and night to keep this club afloat.”

Putting long-term issues aside for now and focusing more closely on the football side of things for the upcoming season though, it looks as though continuity could be more important than ever – something that doesn’t bode particularly well for either of J1’s promoted sides.

Last year’s J2 champions Tokushima Vortis have not only had to deal with the departure of manager Ricardo Rodriguez to Urawa, but his replacement Daniel Poyatos remains unable to enter Japan and it currently doesn’t look as though he will be able to work directly with his new players until as late as the end of March – by which point they will have played around half a dozen games.

While there hasn’t been a change in the dugout at Best Denki Stadium things look equally unsettled for Avispa Fukuoka, with Shigetoshi Hasebe having lost several of his key players from last season. Takumi Kamijima, Asahi Masuyama, and Daiya Tono have all returned to their parent clubs after playing vital roles in securing Avispa’s fourth promotion to the top flight, and while replacements Tatsuki Nara, Taro Sugimoto, and Bruno Mendes are all solid additions they will need to time to adapt to Hasebe’s particular and ordered play style.

When bearing in mind the fact that four teams will be automatically relegated from the first division this season that is time they may not be afforded, with the fixture list serving up an incredibly tough-looking first six games for Avispa: home ties against Nagoya Grampus, Yokohama F.Marinos and Kashima Antlers and visits to three teams expected to be battling for survival with them in Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokushima, and neighbours Sagan Tosu.

At the other end of the continuity spectrum things look fairly positive for last year’s top three, with Kawasaki, Gamba, and Nagoya all keeping their best players and adding impressive depth to help them manage their domestic and continental campaigns. Joao Schmidt provides an excellent option for Toru Oniki in midfield, Leandro Perreira and Kazunari Ichimi undoubtedly add firepower up front for the 2020 league and Emperor’s Cup runners-up, and Massimo Ficcadenti looks as though he’s keen to add more attacking threat to last year’s best defence after bringing in Yoichiro Kakitani and Manabu Saito.

As with everything these days it is difficult to look too far ahead with any clarity though, and plenty of flexibility is again going to be needed over the coming weeks and months.

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