In this first part of a (possible) two part series, @sushi_football looks at some of the players, managers & clubs that 2016 is vital for. 

Wataru Endo – Urawa Reds

Why? “About time!” some people were bound to have said when it was announced that Endo, captain of Japan’s U23 olympic side, was moving from Shonan Bellmare to annual title challenger/perennial disappointment Urawa. A lot of people will see this step as a natural progression in an upwardly curving career. After all, despite patrolling the Shonan defence/midfield with an authority that belied his still (relatively) tender years, there was always going to be a limit as to what he could achieve on the Kanagawa coast. He could have left after Bellmare gained promotion in 2014, but he didn’t (it wasn’t through lack of offers) and helped the club stabalize in J1.

Now, he moves on to a new chapter of his development. He’s going ot have to establish himself in the Reds first team if he wants to try and establish himself in the Japanese national team. At Bellmare, the team, while not molded around him, certainly played in a way that helped Endo maximize his talents. But now he has to find a position within Petrovic’s squad and system. He’s a primarily defensive player, but Reds already have an established back three of Makino, Nasu & Moriwaki. Endo either unseats one of those or slots into into a defensive midfield position, currently occupied by club stalwart Yuki Abe. How Urawa use Endo, and if he is their much-fabled “missing piece”, are two storylines to follow in J1 this year.

A compilation of Wataru Endo’s Shonan Bellmare highlights

Cerezo Osaka

Why? Cerezo need only to look at the situation(s) that have occurred with fellow J2 dwellers JEF United and Consadole Sapporo to see what can happen when you don’t bounce back to J1 as soon as you can.

Cerezo have the resources to dwarf any other team in J2. Witness their keeping (for a while, at least) of Diego Forlan & Cacau last year, and this year’s signing of Yoichiro Kakitani. Talent wasn’t really a question last year, but attitude was. They should have walked into the top two on talent alone but too often they were outfought by “lesser” opponents. This year’s J2 is arguably tougher than last year’s edition and Cerezo have lost the aforementioned Forlan & Cacau, as well as Hotaru Yamaguchi from their ranks.

Will Cerezo supporters be happy with their team this year?

That’s not to say it is all bad news. Remember, they were only 5 minutes away from promotion last year. Yoichiro Kakitani, if he is anything like the player he was before his move to Basel, will waltz through J2 defences, ably assisted by Kenyu Sugimoto and new boy Shohei Kiyohara – the ex-Zweigen Kanazawa captain moving to the second city after a fabulous debut year with Kanazawa. As with anything, but especially in the case of Cerezo Osaka, style has to give way to substance for them. You don’t get points for the nicest/brightest kit, the number of handsome players, nor the number of players the casual fan can recognize. Points are gained from team cohesion and a set plan that everyone is working towards. Cerezo would do well to remember come the time that the competitive games begin.

Takashi Sekizuka – JEF United

Why? Sekizuka was ostensibly given a pass for 2015, even though his side finished outside of the play-off places. In the recent past it has almost been unthinkable that JEF would not be in at least the top six teams in J2. That they weren’t last year is either a testament to how much the other teams have improved or how far JEF have fallen (although this is a wider argument for another day).

Sekizuka has been given the green light to completely rebuild JEF’s squad. Out go around 24 players, in come 15 or so. There are building blocks there: U23 striker Ado Onaiwu, midfielders Haruya Ide & Kazuki Nagasawa (even though he is only on loan) are good young players that JEF can try and build around. There’s also experience and nous there in the shape of Seitaro Tomisawa and Takayuki Funayama. The addition of Paraguayan international Eduardo Aranda is an intriguing one and one assumes that he will add the necessary experience to help prevent another JEF United J2 collapse. But people thought the same about the addition of Paulinho last year, so something has to change. The JEF board of directors decided that, this time around, it was the players that had to change and not Sekizuka. They won’t be so forgiving this time next year if JEF are still a J2 club.

Ruy Ramos – FC Gifu

Why? It is year three of the Ruy Ramos experience in Gifu, and things really must start to improve for perennial strugglers. Much has changed off the pitch, a lot of it due to the mere fact of Ramos, Japanese footballing royalty lest we forget, actually being in Gifu. His sponsorships have brought in much needed investment to Gifu and that has allowed the club to significantly improve the infrastructure around the club. New seating has been installed in the Nagaragawa Memorial Centre stadium and the amenities for supporters have also received a timely spruce up. The biggest change is the construction of a new training facility in the city. Before, Gifu were having to train at various locations around Gifu city, and none of them had the facilities that were befitting of a professional J.League club.

But now that side of the club is in pretty decent shape. It is just the team that needs to improve. 17th in his first season, the team flirted with relegation all season long before clambering to safety in the nick of time by finishing 20th. Any more regression, and Gifu are looking at J3, and it would be somewhat ironic if Gifu went down despite having the best facilities at their disposal in their professional history.

Ramos flashes his big smile

Ramos has to think about his legacy as well. If he can drag the team up the table, he will be rightly lauded; taking a club from the edge of extinction (as Gifu were in the winter of 2013/14) and planting it in the relative safety of J2 midtable will be no mean feat. If, however, things go further south, Ramos might not be showing the famous beaming smile so often anymore.

Oita Trinta

Why? Not really sure this needs to be spelled out, but if Oita don’t get back in to J2 pretty sharpish, they are going to be on the crest of financial ruin. Already suffering from a chronic shortage of money while in J2, a prolonged stint in the third tier might be too tough for them. They play in 40,000+ all seater stadium (possibly one of the biggest/best/modern 3rd tier team stadiums in the world….) but their average attendance in 2015 was just over 7,500 – and two of their three over 10,000 attendances came in the games against Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata – and teams of those stature aren’t to be found in J3…..yet. It is going to be very difficult to generate the same kind of enthusiasm when they play YSCC, Blaublitz Akita or any of the Under 23 sides that plague J3.

Still, in a way, relegation gives Oita the chance to trim down the fat and start to make a leaner club. They’ve let go a lot of experienced players this off-season, players that would surely have helped Oita in their bid for promotion. But it seems that they have made a fiscal decision to go a bit more home grown, and a bit cheaper. It isn’t a decision that you can’t immediately disagree with – after all, teams that get relegated must cut their cloth accordingly (except in the weird and wonderful and financially reckless world of teams relegated from the English Premier League). But it is imperative that Oita be successful this year. A good start will help sustain the inevitable “first couple of games interest” casual supporters. But if results start to go downhill, then it will become increasingly difficult to entice people to the Oita Bank Dome.