This area is loosely defined as Nagoya in the south, up to Kanazawa in the north. There are a lot of teams in this region that are looking to bounce back after a tough 2016…..
- Zweigen Kanazawa
- Stadium: Ishikawa Athletics Stadium, Kanazawa
- Last year: 21st in J2
What to expect in 2017: More of the same. Kanazawa struggled in 2016 and I see no reason for any more optimism. Their main problem last year was goals – more specifically, the lack of them – top scorer Masato Yamazaki topped the charts with just 7 goals. To remedy that, Kanazawa have brought in highly experienced forward Koichi Sato from V-Varen Nagasaki. He’s coming off a down couple of years, so Zweigen must hope that he can recapture some of the form that took him into double digit goal seasons in Nagasaki & Gifu. The unproven Yuki Kakita is the only other striking reinforcement brought in.
Elsewhere, Kyohei Sugiura comes in from Vegalta Sendai, but he is three years removed from his last productive season. Young players Kiwara Miyazaki (Albirex Niigata on loan) and Hisashi Ohashi (Kashima) have also arrived. The squad still looks thin.
Key player: Koichi Sato. It is hard to move away from the premise that Kanazawa have to score more goals this year if they are to avoid the drop back to J3. Sato has been brought to the club to assist Masato Yamazaki in providing those goals. Sato is a shifty striker who finds space in the area. He isn’t particularly tall or quick, but he has strikers instincts. Manager Masaaki Yanagishita will have to hope that those senses have not been dulled over the past two fallow years in Nagasaki.
- Kataller Toyama
- Last year: 6th in J3
What to expect in 2017: I’m not really sure. Toyama seem to have become static; they aren’t really going to be near the foot of the table because they have too many decent players for that situation to arise, but I don’t see a promotion push on the horizon this year.
They will probably be hurt by the departure of midfielder Yosuke Mikami to J3 rivals Nagano Parceiro as Mikami provided a lot of thrust from their midfield. They have managed to retain last year’s top scorer Yusuke Kayanuma, and his invention & eye for goal will be important for Toyama once again. They’ve signed a couple of foreign players in the form of Brazilian forward Pablo and Korean striker Han Seung Hyeong, both on loan (from a Brazilian club & Matsumoto Yamaga respectively) and it will be interesting to see if & how those two are utilized.
Key player: Takuya Kokeguchi. The vastly experienced forward will once again be asked be the focal point and spiritual leader of the team. Entering his age 32 season, his fitness showed no signs of decline last year, although he did only score five goals in his 30 appearances. He will look to improve that record in 2017.
- FC Gifu
- Stadium: Nagaragawa Memorial Centre
- Last year: 20th in J2
What to expect in 2017: An evolving style. Gifu narrowly escaped relegation last year on the final day, and the manager who conjoured the turnaround (Megumu Yoshida) and the player who executed it (Leo Mineiro) are no longer there. But there are some reasons to be optimistic.
New manager Takeshi Oki has been out of the J.League for a couple of years, but he is a highly regarded coach across the country. His last stint in the J.League led to two play-off appearances for Kyoto Sanga – but they just couldn’t get over the line to achieve promotion. His signings have been welcomed in the central Japanese city of Gifu, and may give more than a hint of his playing style.
In midfield, there are three very interesting newcomers – Yoshihiro Shoji (Renofa Yamaguchi), Sisinio (via Greece) and Hideyuki Nozawa (on loan from FC tokyo). These are all ball playing midfielders, and show that the plan is to play the ball around, and keep it as much as possible. Last year it was a “get it to Leo Mineiro”kind of tactic, but that didn’t really work until Leo had support from the wings – Koya Kazama & Junichi Paulo Tanaka are the ones once again tasked with giving Gifu width & energy.
In defence, Masaya Tashiro will look to build on his impressive debut season last year, and he will be joined at the back by the returning Henik, a popular player in his first spell at the club two years ago.
Up front, the massive hole left by Leo Mineiro’s transfer to Daegu in Korea looms large. Brand new signing Cristian Alex looks like he might be given first chance to earn that goalscoring spot. Behind him (presumably) are veteran striker Hiroaki Namba, and young forwards Ryo Takiya, Kyogo Furuhashi & Kento Yabuuchi.
Key player: Yoshihiro Shoji. The new signing from Renofa Yamaguchi has not only been given the mythical #10 shirt, he has also been made captain. Quite the honour for the new boy, but one that shows that manager Oki sees him as vital to his plans. I expect Shoji to sit in as Gifu’s ball holding/ball playing midfielder – acting as the quarterback, so to speak, and allowing others in front to flourish. Gifu seem to have a nucleus of players that are good on the ball, but Shoji will be the metronome. He is the key.
- Nagoya Grampus
- Stadium: Paloma Mizuho/Toyota Stadium
- Last year: 16th in J1.
What to expect in 2017: Champions. Or at the very least promotion, because anything other than that will be a huge failure for Grampus.
Ex-Kawasaki Frontale coach Yahiro Kazama will be the man responsible for making sure Nagoya return to J1 at the first time of asking. His Kawasaki sides always drew plaudits for how they played, even if they always fell short when it mattered. I’m not sure he’ll have that problem in J2, and his squad should be good enough to back him up.
Up front is where the quality shows. Hisato Sato has come in from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, while Keiji Tamada returns after a sabbatical at Cerezo Osaka. Those two veterans will vie with two J2 strikers with good reputations – Yuki Oshitani (from Okayama) and Ryo Nagai (from Nagasaki). Add in the retained Robin Simovic, and you have a collection of strikers that, if given service, could steamroller through the league. In addition, I would guess that this collection of forwards would render the departure of Kengo Kawamata to ‘meh’ status.
Will they miss Tulio? In a word, yes. Any team, especially at this J2 level, would miss his leadership. If there’s one glaring weakness in traditional Kazama teams, it is defensively. His teams are wonderful to watch, but are very susceptible at the back. Seigo Narazaki is back for another season in goal, but he isn’t the force he was and Grampus would do well to buy/find/groom his replacement and to that end the impressive youngster Tsubasa Shibuya arrives from Yokohama FC. It wouldn’t shock me to see him if not start the season, then definitely become the starter as it progresses. Riki Matsuda, Ha Dae Sung, Takahiro Ogihara & Kisho Yano are all other high profile departures – but this team & club needs a complete reset. That is their best chance of returning to relevance.
Key Player: Charles. Not your average name for a Brazilian import into the J.League, but he will likely play a key role in Nagoya’s campaign. As stated before, I don’t believe scoring goals will be their problem given their embarrassment of riches to call upon. Stopping the goals will be, and as a Brazilian defender, comparisons will of course be made to the now departed Tulio. If Grampus can keep a reasonable defensive record, then they will be in with a great chance of winning J2 this year.