An oft forgotten area of the footballing landscape in Japan, with the obvious exception of Kashima, the area between Tokyo & Tohoku is home to the reigning champions, two J2 sides and a J3 side looking to make it back to J2 after coming so close in 2016…..

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  • Tochigi SC
  • Stadium: Tochigi Green Stadium
  • Last year: 2nd in J3, lost J2/J3 play off

What to expect in 2017: Another promotion push. They were crushingly overtaken on the penultimate matchday of J3 by eventual J3 champions Oita Trinita, and then suffered the double disappointment of then losing the J2/J3 play off against Zweigen Kanazawa, even though Kanazawa played their ‘home’ leg away from home (don’t ask…).

What they need to do next year is fix their goalscoring troubles. Last year they scored 38 goals, compared with the 50 of champions Oita, and with top scorer Tsugutoshi Oishi moving to Renofa Yamaguchi in J2, they have a huge need up top. It is with that in mind that they have brought in striker Koki Takenaka from JFL side Briobecca Urayasu. Takenaka scored 17 goals as Briobecca enjoyed a fine first season at that level, and Tochigi will hope that his career trajectory goes along the same lines at Oishi, who worked his way up through the amateur ranks.

At the back, Jonny Leoni joins from Nagano to presumably replace the outgoing first choice from last year, Daisuke Yoshimitsu.

Key player: Koji Hirose. The vastly experienced midfielder/forward will be required to a bit more heavy lifting with the departure of Oishi, and he will be counted upon to provide more than the five goals he scored in the league last year if Tochigi are looking to get back to J2.

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  • Kashima Antlers
  • Stadium: Kashima Stadium
  • Last year: J1 champions

What to expect in 2017: More of the same – ie: a serious J.League title challenge. The loss of midfielder Gaku Shibasaki will hit them, the silky smooth midfielder sealed a European deadline day move to Tenerife, but Kashima have some riches in that department. Ryota Nagaki played himself into undroppable form in the second half of the year, and with the signing of Leo Silva from Albirex Niigata, they will still be strong in the middle of the park. Mu Kanazaki was the star of the championship series, and he will once again be joined up front by the blossoming Yuma Suzuki and new boy Pedro Junior. Yasushi Endo & Shoma Doi will help with the creating, while the underappreciated Daigo Nishi bombs on from his right back position.

At the back, Gen Shoji & Naomichi Ueda will probably be the two CB in coach Masatada Ishii’s usual 4-4-2 system, and they have strengthened arguably their weakest position (and that term is relative) in goal by bringing in Korean goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-Tae from Asain champions Jeonbuk Hyundai.

This squad is extremely good.

Key player: Mu Kanazaki. It is difficult to choose just one player, but the man who stepped up to the plate big time at the end of the season will once again be asked to provide the cutting edge to Kashima’s slick build up play. Another key player will be the one who is trusted to take on Shibasaki’s game making role, but it isn’t clear exactly who that will be yet.

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  • Mito Hollyhock
  • Stadium: K’s Denki Stadium
  • Last year: 13th in J2

What to expect in 2017: Another year looking down instead of up. Mito are inevitably overshadowed by their far more illustrious prefectural neighbours up the road in Kashima, and they face an annual struggle for relevance. Last year they flirted aggressively with the bottom two before eventually pulling away thanks to their ability to draw games when others around them were losing.

That being said, it isn’t a solid, sustainable strategy. They’ve reinforced the defence with signings that might or might not pay off. Ex-Consadole Sapporo defender Paulon & Korean defender Kwong Young Jin have been brought in to shore up a back line that conceded 49 goals last year. Keita Tanaka arrives from FC Ryukyu in J3 with a reputation (and record) as a good goalscorer, while ex-Montedio Yamagata pair of Hiroki Bandai & Ryohei Hayashi will hopefully provide some more firepower for Takayuki Nishigaya’s team.

Key player: Keita Tanaka. Tanaka has earned his shot at J2 after two excellent seasons in Okinawa with FC Ryukyu. Last year he led the way with 13 goals from his right wing position, building upon his already impressive 2015. If there is one thing that Mito need, it is a sort of X-factor player, and in Tanaka it looks like they may have found their man.

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  • ThespaKusatsu Gunma
  • Stadium: Shodo Shoya Stadium
  • Last year: 17th in J2

What to expect in 2017: The club with the biggest mouthful for a name in Japan (the name itself is supposed to read as ‘the spa’ not ‘thespa’ because it relates to Kusatsu’s fame as a hot spring/spa resort) will once again probably be looking over their shoulders again in 2017. The loss of outstanding young striker Yusuke Segawa to Omiya – following the path trodden by fellow outstanding forward Ataru Esaka – will hit them hard unless they can unearth someone of similar quality. They’ve brought in no less than nine new players fresh out of university, and while the adage goes that youngsters play without fear, one wonders if that number is just too many to assimilate into a team that will probably find itself down near the foot of the table.

On the positive side, Shohei Okada is just three years removed from a blistering season in J2 with Shonan Bellmare, and he will have something to prove after a nondescript couple of years at Sagan Tosu. On his day, he can be a very lively attacking threat. Veteran midfielder Yuki Matsushita showed no signs of decline in 2016, and his veteran experience (over 400 career appearances) will likely be invaluable to the new guard. Kohei Morita comes in from Ventforet Kofu to add more experience, and no doubt improve the standard of ramen noodles in Gunma (at Kofu he was famous for his ramen designs).

Key player: Yuko Takase. The left back/wing back is a threat on that side of the pitch due to his accurate final ball & cross. Now that the attacking threat is a bit unknown (unless Shunta Takahashi can build on his promising 2016) his creativity will be vital for Gunma. No player created more chances for Thespa than Takase last year, and his runs down the left hand sideline will once again be major source of attacking possibilities.

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