Shikoku is usually classed as Japan’s fourth island, and a beautiful island it is too. There are three professional teams resident there, all plying their trade in J2. We start this set of previews with the team that is named after the whirlpools in the nearby Naruto strait….
- Tokushima Vortis
- Stadium: Pocari Sweat Stadium, Naruto
- Last year: 9th in J2
What to expect in 2017: If things go right, a distinct change in style. New manager Ricardo Rodriguez comes in after having experienced the Thai Premier League, and the UEFA qualified coach has his own set of values & principles to go with. Vortis (and all the teams on Shikoku to a certain extent) are a little bit forgotten about, but that could work to Rodriguez’s advantage as it could give him the necessary time & space to implement his changes.
The changes in personnel are already starting to take shape. Yatsunori Shimaya, such a crucial part of Renofa Yamaguchi’s run from the the JFL to J2 has come in, as has highly talented youngster Taro Sugimoto on loan from Kashima Antlers. Korean defender Kim Jong Pil comes recommended from Suphanburi in Thailand, while they’ve also added a couple of Serbians in the form of defender Nicola Vasiljevic (from a Romanian side) and forward Nicola Asceric, scorer of four goals last year for Serbian side Vojvodina.
Key player: Rikuto Hirose. Hirose was excellent last year playing on the right hand side of midfield, or as a wing-back. His ability to get forward and provide an outlet on that side proved invaluable for Vortis, and his accurate delivery caused opposition defences plenty of problems.
- Kamatamare Sanuki
- Stadium: Pikara Stadium
- Last year: 19th in J2
What to expect in 2017: Hopefully, for them, a year without worrying about relegation too much. Kama have an experienced squad; from GK Kenta Shimizu and ex-Gamba Osaka defender Evson, to Daigo Watanabe & Kazumasa Takagi in midfield, to Kazuki Hara, Kazuki Ganaha & Ryosuke Kijima up front. This team has been there & done it, and this season could be the year – especially with the addition of Kazuki Hara up front – where they climb into mid-table. Coach Makoto Kitano has negotiated Sanuki from the JFL to J2, and rarely gets the credit that he probably deserves.
Key player: Kazuki Hara. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Sanuki announced the signing of the tall, pony-tailed striker. Scorer of 16 goals in the relegated Giravanz Kitakyushu side, he should have had a robust market, being in good condition (played over 70 games in the last two years) and only 32 – which is not old for a J2 striker. That he didn’t sign on with a team more upwardly mobile is a bit of a puzzle, but maybe he can make Sanuki that side. He is good in the air, physical and while he doesn’t have a lot of pace at this point in his career, he has that knack of being in good places. If he can replicate his goal total of 2016, Sanuki will be very happy with that…..and other teams will cast envious glances.
- Ehime FC
- Stadium: Ningineer Stadium
- Last year: 10th in J2
What to expect in 2017: A struggle. Last year, while not as eye catching as the previous year, was still another excellent season for the orange-clad men from the north-western part of the island. They unlocked the potential of Toyofumi Sakano – who has now moved on to Montedio Yamagata; they got a double digit goal season out of forward Yuji Senuma – who is now at Montedio Yamagata. In goal, Tsuyoshi Kodama played all 42 games – he is now at Montedio Yamagata, and manager Takashi Kiyama has left for……you guessed it, Montedio Yamagata. Ehime have lost an awful lot of their talent, especially in the dug out, and new manager Shuichi Mase has a lot on his plate. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Ehime in a relegation battle this season.
But to look at the positive side, Mase did lead Blaublitz Akita to an impressive fourth position in J3 last year. They could have goals in them, the addition of Koki Arita – back to a place where he made such an impression in 2012 (which seems a long time ago now, but he scored 14 goals in that year) to Kazuhisa Kawahara & Go Nishida should give them options up front, but it will probably be tough sledding for them.
Key player: Makoto Rindo. The centre back has been a virtual ever present the last two years, and his improvement has been very noticeable. Good in the air for someone who isn’t so tall, and strong in the tackle, Ehime will need him to be his usual consistent self if they are to stay away from the bottom of the league.