Happy new year, and welcome back to J.League Regista for 2017! With the J.League kicking off in a month’s time, it is time to start looking forward to what is in store this year. It promises to be yet another interesting year across the Japanese football spectrum, from the top of J1, to the race to become professional, to the national team’s quest to qualify for Russia 2018.
As a preamble, here are some things to look forward to this year – all the way from Antlers to Zelvia!
A is for – Antlers
Defending champions, they only seem to have become stronger. Leo Silva has arrived from Niigata to bolster an already strong midfield, while Pedro Junior is an excellent acquisition from Kobe. Can they repeat?
B is for – Brazilians
Once again, Brazilians will form the majority of the foreign players plying their trade in Japan. Leandro (Vissel Kobe), Raffael Silva (Urawa), Paulao (Mito), Leo Silva (Kashima) are ones that I’m particularly looking forward to seeing, although everyone will have their own opinions/favourites.
C is for – Consadole Sapporo
Back in the big time, the 2016 J2 champions look like they’ll have their work cut out to stick around in the top league. Still, it will be fun to see Shinji Ono back in J1 – not to mention the effervescent Ken Tokura.
D is for – DAZN
The new broadcaster. Money promised, new technology promised. Can it deliver the experience the J.League fans want?
E is for – Endo
The Urawa version, Wataru, is who this section is aimed at. The former Shonan Bellmare star can take another step in his progression if he builds upon his impressive debut season in Saitama. With Makino & Moriwaki beginning to show their age a little bit, more will be expected of Endo to become a key component of the defence/team. Any impressive showings will also enhance his national team prospects.
F is for – FC Tokyo
Pretenders to the J1 crown? Okubo, Nagai, Takahagi, Ota. That’s a pretty impressive lineup of arrivals. Are we about to see a long overdue title challenge from the capital’s club?
G is for – Giravanz Kitakyushu
Good news: A new stadium awaits. Bad news: A new (lower) league also awaits.
H is for – Halilhodzic
When he’s not picking his nose, he’s plotting Japan’s course to the 2018 World Cup. It isn’t going to be easy – Japan have three middle eastern away games and a home tie against Australia to navigate. Things are so tight in the group that they could easily finish top, or there is the real possibility they could finish 4th, and miss out on the play-off spot. It is going to be a nervous time for Samurai Blue fans in 2017.
I – Imabari FC / Iwaki FC
Two regional league clubs with big plans. Imabari are owned by Takeshi Okada (former Japan head coach) and have plans to establish a new footballing hotbed on the island of Shikoku.
Iwaki FC – located in Fukushima – are backed by sporting apparel company Under Armour and are going about things from the bottom up. They’ve built a state of the art training facility and aim to be at the cutting edge of football science. They’ll be interesting to watch.
J – Juan Esnaider
Part of the Latin American “invasion” of J2 this year, Esnaider is tasked with shaking JEF United Chiba out of their hibernation. Esnaider has bags of experience as a player (he played for Real Madrid, Real Zaragoza, Atletico & Espanyol), but his coaching experience is patchy. According to Wikipedia (I know….), his winning percentage is 28.7% – that isn’t going to fly for very long at JEF.
K is for – King Kazu
He’ll be fifty this season. 50 years old. Think about it. A fifty year old playing professional football. Just wait until he scores…….you’ll see it reported around the globe.
L is for – Lukas Podolski
A marquee signing (if it does indeed happen – reports are still yet to be 100% clear) for the league, Podolski is a world cup winner with still a bit left in the tank. If it isn’t Podolski, then so be it. But the J.League desperately needs a big name foreign signing to work – not only for itself, but also in order to take attention away from the more lucrative Chinese Super League.
M is for – Matsumoto Yamaga
The trauma of missing out on automatic promotion last year carried over into their highly dramatic play-off defeat at home to Fagiano Okayama. Yasuhiro Sorimachi has re-stocked & reloaded his squad for another assault on promotion, but one problem could be goalkeeper, where they will be hurt by the return of Daniel Schmidt to parent club Vegalta Sendai. Schmidt was outstanding for Yamaga last year, and how they replace him will go a long way to determining how their season pans out.
Everyone knows the potential of Matsumoto – they just have to produce it on the field now.
N is for – Nagoya Grampus
A new coach (Yahiro Kazama), a new league (J2), and a new forward line (Keiji Tamada, Hisato Sato, Ryo Nagai, Yuki Oshitani). How Nagoya adapts to being in the second tier of Japanese will be one of the main story lines of the year.
O is for – One stage season
Welcome back to the one stage season! No more calculations over two stages. Thank God.
P – Popp (Willian)
One of the more intriguing signings in this transfer window is Avispa Fukuoka’s signing of Popp, who scored 18 goals for Korean side Busan I-Park last season. Avispa, despite relegation, seem to have built a squad capable of challenging for promotion back to J1. If Popp can settle in quickly and provide a cutting edge, it could be a good season at the Level 5 stadium.
Q is for – Quelling dissent
I’m looking at you, Yokohama F.Marinos. This off-season saw club icon Shunsuke Nakamura leave for Jubilo Iwata, and his parting shot was a thinly veiled dig at the people that run the club. Behind the scenes turmoil, the loss of a star player the fans adored, no marquee signing to rally around – this year could go south quite quickly if they get off to a bad start. Their first game of the year? At home to Urawa Reds……
R is for – Relegation dogfights
This year, in both J1 & J2, there appears to a large gaggle of teams that look like they might be looking down instead of up. in J1, Kofu, Sendai, S-Pulse, Sapporo, Cerezo, Niigata (possibly Jubilo & YFM?) look like they could be involved in relegation matters.
In J2, honestly, you can probably choose from 16/17 teams – such is the closeness of the division. Zweigen Kanazawa & FC Gifu, who finished 21st & 20th last year respsectively, will probably be first on most people’s list of relegation candidates.
S is for – Shunsuke Nakamura
This season it will be “Jubilo Iwata number 10 – Shunsuke Nakamura” – it might take a little getting used to.
T is for – Tulio
The ex-Nagoya Grampus legend is in J2 this year, but not with Grampus as might have been expected, but with Kyoto Sanga. Tulio could have easily retired, but the chance to help Kyoto to promotion, possibly at the expense of his former club, was too good to turn down. Expect fireworks when the two teams meet.
U is for – Urawa Reds
Put up or shut up time for the team from the red half of Saitama. The team finished with the most points last year – but still didn’t win the title. Somehow that seems very Urawa. 2017 is a year that should warrant no excuses – but it won’t be easy.
V is for – Veterans
Yasuhito Endo, Mitsuo Ogasawara, the aforementioned Shusuke Nakamura, Gon Nakayama, King Kazu, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi…..just some veterans of the Japanese scene who will be playing across the three professional leagues this year.
Catch them while you can.
W is for – Welcome home!
Yuji Ono & Kosuke Ota are two “stars” that have returned to the J.League after less than stellar stints in Europe. A lot of eyes will be on them to see how they re-adapt to life in Japanese football.
X is for – (Fuji) Xerox (Super Cup)
The traditional curtain raiser to the Japanese season is the Fuji Xerox Super Cup, this year to be played between Kashima & Urawa in a rematch of the J.League Championship game from 2016. Which club will be able to land the first piece of silverware, and in the process lay down a marker for the season? We will find out on January 18th.
Y is for – Yoichiro Kakitani
Osaka’s newest tourist ambassador – seriously – will be looked upon to help his newly promoted Cerezo side re-establish itself in the top flight.
Z is for – Zelvia (Machida)
After an excellent first year back in J2 in 2016, can they repeat the trick in 2017?