Kansai is the area usually defined as Kyoto in the east, to Kobe/Hyogo in the west. And this year it is a hotbed of interesting storylines. We are starting this set of previews with only non-J1 side in the region…..
- Kyoto Sanga
- Stadium: Nishikyogoku
- Last year: 5th in J2
What to expect in 2017: Another play-off push. This year’s J2, at face value, doesn’t look as daunting as last year’s. Nagoya will start off as favourites in most people’s eyes, but after that it looks like to be much of a muchness teams like Kyoto (along with Matsumoto, Fukuoka, Shonan etc) will fancy their chances of a play-off spot. They’ve lost a bit of team experience with Koji Yamase (Fukuoka), Andrei (Chapocense) & Yuki Horigome (Kofu) all leaving, but they’ve added two interesting players from the K-League in forward Kevin Oris & midfielder Ha Sung Min who should produce immediately.
Key player: Tulio. The big man is back in the J.League after retiring, and then coming back to try & save Grampus from relegation last year. That he has been tempted back by Kyoto is quite a big thing. He is still the commanding, leading centre half that we are used to seeing, although his pace has gone (but that shouldn’t be a problem for him in J2). Will he play every game? I doubt it, but the games he will play will be the important ones. How he leads this team, which lost the popular Koji Yamase this winter, will be vital to their promotion hopes.
- Gamba Osaka
- Stadium: Suita Soccer Stadium
- Last year: 4th in J1
What to expect in 2017: A title challenge. Gamba need to be challenging at the business end of the J.League. They had an off season by their lofty standards and Kenta Hasegawa will be looking for a strong improvement. They’ve invested in some very good young(ish) attacking players – Haruya Ide has arrived from JEF United after showing good things at the Fukuari while Jin Izumisawa, the livewire Omiya Ardija winger, joined after an excellent season for The Squirrels in 2016. The homegrown Ritsu Doan, of whom much is expected, should get a lot more of a look in this year. At the back, the signing of Fabio from F.Marinos might turn out to be a good one, but the jury is still out on him.
Key player: Yosuke Ideguchi. The all action midfielder is regarded as one of the brightest young stars in Japan and showed flashes of excellence in a highly impressive debut season. If he can continue his upward trajectory, Gamba will have themselves a midfielder that they can build their team around – until the inevitable European vultures come circling. Tenacious in the tackle, a good passer, and an eye for a spectacular goal all add up to someone with the tools to become the premier midfielder in the league (in this watcher’s opinion).
- Cerezo Osaka
- Stadium: Kincho/Nagai
- Last year: 4th in J2, play-off winners
What to expect in 2017: No idea. Could be title contenders, could be battling relegation. Somewhere in the top eight would be my guess, but the last time the Cerezo all-stars stepped out in J1 they were relegated. Being the J2 play-off winners last year would usually make them odds on favourites to go down (a fate that has befallen previous play-off winners Oita, Tokushima, Yamagata and Fukuoka) but there is some serious reasons that Cerezo could be the first to avoid that fate. New coach Yoon Jong Hwan knows the J.League after having led Sagan Tosu to the top of J1 in his previous stint in Japan. Kim Jin-Hyeon continues the line of good Korean goalkeepers in the J.League and Cerezo can also call upon the national team talents of Hotaru Yamaguchi, whom they rescued from a nightmare time at Hannover in the Bundesliga, and Hiroshi Kiyotake, their recent splash signing from Sevilla.
Souza was an excellent addition to their midfield last year in J2, showing power & poise and if can take a step up to J1 level then that Cerezo midfield looks like one not to be messed with. In this writers opinion, Yoichiro Kakitani is still a question mark. His explosiveness looked diminished in J2 last year, possibly struggling to regain his confidence from a difficult spell in Europe with FC Basel. If, and it is a big if, Kakitani can score 12-15 goals in 2017, I would expect Cerezo to be challenging for the top six.
Key player: Hiroshi Kiyotake. He’s the big name that everyone will have their eyes on, but he has skills to live up to the expectations. Probably going to play just off Yoichiro Kakitani, he will be given license to move about and to find space. Add in his excellent set piece delivery and you have a player that is capable of rising to Cerezo’s J1 challenge.
- Vissel Kobe
- Stadium: Noevir Stadium
- Last year: 7th in J1
What to expect in 2017: Another top half finish. Vissel clicked big time in the second stage last year, as they won eight of their last ten games to threaten for the second stage title. They ultimately fell away, but it showed a tantalizing glimpse of what the highly respected Nelsinho’s team could achieve. They average nearly two goals a game in the second stage, and if they can bring up some of the young talent they have to compliment the existing, high quality starters they have already, it could be another top eight season for them. The Kansai derbies between Kobe & the Osaka clubs are looking like must watch games this year.
Key player: Leandro. Vissel flirted & teased the football public in Japan by coming so close (apparently) to signing German world cup winner Lukas Podolski. That they didn’t paves the way for ace marksman Leandro to be the main focal point for the team again. Last year, Leandro built up a great understanding with fellow attackers Kazuma Watanabe & Pedro Junior on his way to scoring 19 goals, and given that Pedro Junior has moved to Kashima, Nelsinho will look to Leandro to pick up the slack. The Brazilian forward is a J.League veteran who knows how to use his body to win balls against defenders, is deceptively quick over the first 10-15 meters, and always seems to find a way to get in scoring positions. His 19 goal haul last year was his third double digit season in the last six years and few would bet against achieving the same again in 2017.