West Japan, for our purposes, stretches from past Kobe in the east, to the tip of Japan’s main island Honshu in the west. In this geographical area, we have a small, but very diverse group of clubs looking to find success in 2017. First, we look at last year’s beaten J2 playoff finalists…..

 

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Okayama’s “Curva Rosa” in Gifu
  • Fagiano Okayama
  • Stadium: Citylight Stadium
  • Last year: 6th in J2, beaten playoff finalists

What to expect in 2017: I’m not sure, but I think last year might have represented their best chance of promotion. Their stunning play-off semi final win in Matsumoto was one of the best matches of the year at any level in Japan, but they failed to follow it up (somewhat unsurprisingly) as they were beaten by Cerezo Osaka in the final.

From that team, they’ve lost some important players. Hirotsugu Nakabayashi, widely acclaimed as the best goalkeeper in J2 over the past two or three years has joined J1 side Sanfrecce Hiroshima in what is a huge blow to them. They’ve tried to soften it by bringing in Renofa Yamaguchi goalkeeper Jun Ichimori, but Nakabayashi will prove big gloves to fill. At the other end of the pitch, 14 goal top goalscorer Yuki Oshitani has decided to join Yahiro Kazama’s Nagoya Grampus overhaul, while impressive winger Shinya Yajima’s loan spell from Urawa Reds has finished and he has returned to the red half of Saitama. Veteran defender Daiki Iwamasa has also left the club, signing for lower level side Tokyo United FC.

As for reinforcements, Fagiano haven’t been super active this winter, but they have taken on some interesting names. Alongside Ichimori, Masato Kushibiki (loan from Shimizu) will fight for the number 1 spot. Making the trip with Kushibiki is the highly talented Hideki Ishige, whose career has somewhat stalled over the past couple of years. He will look to replace the creativity that Yajima’s departure leaves. Kohei Kiyama is an interesting addition to the squad (from Matsumoto Yamaga) given his versatility & experience. He could turn out to be a very good signing for Fagiano.

Key player: Yuta Toyokawa. The forward enjoyed a fruitful season in 2016, scoring 10 goals to finish second top goalscorer behind Oshitani and the Kashima Antlers player’s loan agreement has been extended for the 2017 season. Toyokawa actually only started nine times last season, but he made an impact coming on in games and giving opposition defenders something extra to think about. Comfortable as the main striker or just playing off a target man, Toyokawa will have to be ready to step up and replace Oshitani if Okayama are to have any chance of replicating last year’s play-off push.

 

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  • Sanfrecce Hiroshima
  • Stadium: Edion Stadium
  • Last year: 6th in J1

What to expect in 2017: A determined effort to get back to the summit. Last year, by Sanfrecce’s recent lofty standards, was a disappointment. They finished 6th overall, and looked a very different team from the one that swept all before them in 2015. Still, manager Hajime Moriyasu has been doubted before and turned things around, so there’s no need for him to panic just yet. They did need to bolster the squad, and in that department the marquee signing of the winter has been Masato Kudo. The ex-Kashiwa forward had an indifferent time in the MLS, but in the J.League he is proven performer and Sanfrecce will hope that he can rediscover his scoring touch at the Big Arch.

The losses from this squad are mostly more ceremonial than really important for the team, but Sanfrecce have often been a team based on heart & spirit during their successful dynasty of the last few years. Hisato Sato has moved on to get regular football, joining J2 side Nagoya Grampus, while fellow club legend Koji Morisaki called it quits after 17 years wearing the purple of Sanfrecce.

Of more significance on the pitch will be the loss of Peter Utaka. No-one is quite sure what has happened to him, or if he will actually resurface at Shimizu S-Pulse (he was on loan from Shimizu last year). He scored nineteen times last year, and that production is going to be hard to replace. Can Anderson Lopes step up in Utaka’s absence? And what kind of effect will fellow Brazilian Felipe have in the mythical #10 shirt? These two questions will go a long way to telling how well Sanfrecce do this year.

Key player: Toshihiro Aoyama. The Hiroshima icon is only one year removed from a stellar MVP campaign, and Sanfrecce need him to regain that kind of all-conquering form again. In truth, I think he was hurt by the loss of Takuma Asano to Stuttgart, because Aoyama’s long passing is exceptional, and when he had Asano he knew he had an outlet that he could use to turn defence into attack very rapidly. Last season, Peter Utaka played really well at times, but he wasn’t the outlet that Sanfrecce, and especially Aoyama, needed. This year, he probably needs to refine his game a little bit, unless Anderson Lopes can develop a similar rapport with him. Aoyama, especially with the departures of Hisato Sato & Koji Morisaki, is the beating heart of this side. Hopefully he regains his MVP form this year.

 

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  • Gainare Tottori
  • Stadium: Torigin Stadium
  • Last year: 15th in J3

What to expect in 2017: Another difficult year. Since their relegation from J2, Gainare Tottori have suffered from financial instability and poor performance on the field. The signs aren’t good for the upcoming year either.

Seemingly evergreen striker Fernandinho has left the club to go back to Brazil, goalkeeper Haruki Fukushima, who spent the second half of the year as first choice, has gone back to parent club Urawa Reds, and their other loan signing Tsuyoshi Miyaichi has gone back to Shonan Bellmare.

In their place, the names aren’t really super encouraging. Young Jubilo Iwata forward Ryuolivier Iwamoto – scorer of one goal in the JFL last year – has come in on loan, while Renofa Yamaguchi forward Takuto Haraguchi has joined on a permanent deal. He also scored just the one goal last year. One positive signing is the acquisition of Mito Hollyhock defender Kosei Ishigami. The experienced defender will hopefully be able to support what was a statistically bad defence last year (47 goals conceded in 30 outings)

Key player: Ryuji Hirota. Sonehow still only 23, Hirota has been in Tottori since 2013 and has amassed over 100 appearances for them. He is versatile, but his best position is on the right hand side of midfield with a license to get forward. He only scored one goal last year, and with question marks once again surrounding the goal threat of Gainare’s collection of strikers, the onus will upon Hirota to get forward and score more goals this year.

 

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  • Renofa Yamaguchi
  • Stadium: Ishin Memorial Stadium
  • Last year: 12th in J2

What to expect in 2017: A possible regression. Renofa were nothing short of outstanding in their debut J2 campaign last year. A mix of pace & verve, Yamaguchi started of electrically, and were, at one point, looking towards a place in the top six. That they ultimately fell away should do nothing to detract from how they performed in 2016. Unfortunately for them, they performed so well that other clubs took notice and starting looking at their collection of good players, and they’ve ended up losing quite a lot of talent.

Midfield lynchpin Yoshihiro Shoji has moved to FC Gifu, Masato Nakayama, their top scorer, signed for Montedio Yamagata. The second top scorer form last year, Yatsunori Shimaya, has also left – going to join Ricardo Rodriguez’s revolution in Tokushima & highly promising full back Ryuta Koike has made the step up to J1, joining Kashiwa Reysol. The list goes on: midfield schemer Takaaki Fukumitsu to Cerezo Osaka, goalkeeper Jun Ichimori to Fagiano Okayama and defender Fumitaka Kitatani’s loan spell finished. That is a lot of talent & experience to lose in one off season.

To try and give some positives, Renofa have actually added some good players. Goalkeeper Genki Yamada has arrived on loan from Kyoto Sanga, while Masashi Wada – Yokohama F.Marinos’ exciting young forward has also joined on loan. Joining Wada up front will be Tsugutoshi Oishi, fresh off a double digit scoring season at Tochigi SC. At the back, Takayuki Mae (on loan from Consadole Sapporo) and Kodai Watanabe (Montedio Yamagata) will look to provide some stability at the back. But these players have a lot to live up to.

Key player: Kosuke Onose. The midfielder joined Renofa this winter after spending all of his (still young) professional career at Yokohama FC. He scored four times for Yokohama from his advanced midfield position, and given that Renofa have lost a combined 124 appearances from last year from their midfield, it is important that someone is able to step up & help provide chances. Renofa will be an interesting team to watch, and they will need Onose to to be a big part of what they do.

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