The capital comes a-calling in this installment of regional previews. Some people will have a go at me for putting Machida in here – apparently there is some debate as to whether Machida is in Tokyo itself or not. But, whatever. I’m happy with it (and it means one less team in the upcoming Kanagawa preview too….). Will the capital have a J.League champion in 2017?
- FC Tokyo
- Stadium: Ajinomoto Stadium
- Last year: 9th in J1
What to expect in 2017: Call me an optimist, but I’m expecting a title challenge.
Last year started in the most emphatic way possible when they smashed Thai side Chonburi in their Asian Champions League qualifier by a score of 9-0. After that, it went stale very quickly. Hiroshi Jofuku, the manager for the first half of the season, wasn’t a particularly inspiring choice as manager in the first place, but as results & performances regressed, the board had very little choice but to replace him. His replacement, Yoshiyuki Shinoda, oversaw an upturn in form & performances, ended the season with four straight wins to give the Gasmen (a nickname that gives a nod to their corporate past) optimism heading into this season.
That optimism was further boosted by their off season player recruitment & renewals. Masato Morishige committed to the club despite the strong attentions of former boss Massimo Ficcadenti at Sagan Tosu, and he headlines a defence that welcomes back left back Kosuke Ota from Vitesse Arnhem in Holland, and says hello to goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi who joins from Sagan Tosu. Hayashi’s arrival was a good piece of goalkeeping news after a winter which saw last year’s incumbent Yota Akimoto return to former club Shonan Bellmare, and Shuichi Gonda end his association with the club (ironically, he makes the opposite trip to Hayashi given that he has signed for Sagan Tosu).
Further forward Yojiro Takahagi returns to Japan after a spell at K-League winners FC Seoul, while speedster Kensuke Nagai arrives from relegated Nagoya Grampus. Of course, the marquee signing is Yoshito Okubo. Okubo guaranteed goals in his time at Kawasaki, and Tokyo need it after Muriqui flamed out and went back to the Middle East, and with a good supporting cast in Tokyo, should be able to do the same at Ajinomoto Stadium.
Helping in that cause will be the diminutive Shoya Nakajima. Nakajima is a favourite of this writer, because he combines almost everything you want in attacking midfielder: pace, trickery, good passing, good shooting and a high football intelligence. Successive managers haven’t really given him a chance to flourish – some put that down to his physical traits, but I think that is a poor excuse – but it was telling that when Shinoda put him into the team towards the end of August, Tokyo lost only one game and looked a much better proposition than they had done previously. With Nakajima, Hiroki Kawano, Takahagi, & Ota all supplying ammunition for Nagai & Okubo (and Nathan Burns if he gets a chance) it could be an entertaining FC Tokyo side this year.
Key player: Yoshito Okubo. As detailed above, FCT have brought in a lot of new, high profile parts but for this team to make a sustained push for honours, it needs a cutting edge and this is the exact reason they lured Okubo from their rivals from across the Tama river.
Okubo is a player that supporters love on their team, and dislike when he is on the opposing side. A spiky striker with no qualms about leaving a boot in, he has been superb for Kawasaki over the last four years or so. In fact, in the last four years, Okubo has scored a total of 82 goals – or an average of 21 per season. If he can hit 20+ goals this year, with the other talent around him, FC Tokyo will be a pretty difficult team to defend against.
- Tokyo Verdy
- Stadium: Ajinomoto Stadium
- LAst year: 18th in J2
What to expect in 2017: Another difficult season. Verdy dispensed with the services of Koichi Togashi as manager, replacing him with the experienced Spaniard Miguel Angel Lotina. Togashi had a reputation as a coach that was willing to give youth its chance, and despite a promising start to his reign, they ultimately slipped away & downwards, finish just aboe the relegation spots last year. Will Lotina be able to improve on that? I have to admit, I don’t have a lot of knowledge about him so I’ll have to reserve judgement.
On the playing side, they’ve looked to strengthen their midfield by raiding the Osaka clubs – Tatsuya Uchida joins on loan from Gamba and Hideo Hashimoto from Cerezo. Ryota Kajikawa, who had two excellent seasons at V-Varen Nagasaki is a very good acquisition for Verdy.
After losing Ryuji Sugomoto to Nagoya Grampus, it was assumed that they would be in the market for another forward to replace, but as of writing this they seem content with their current group of forwards. Daisuke Takagi, the boy who came up through Verdy’s youth system is the man that will look to assume the mantle of the attacking centrepiece. He scored six times last year, but should be looking to at least double that tally in 2017. Verdy still have Brazilians Alan Pinheiro & Douglas Vieira to call upon.
Key player: Yoshiaki Takagi. Older brother of Daisuke, Yoshiaki was superb in Verdy’s midfield last year. He scored eight times in 2016, and occupies the space just behind the forward line. Tricky & deceptively quick over the first 10m or so, Takagi snr is a difficult proposition to defend. If he can replicate last year – and he has a good chance with the experience that been brought into the midfield behind him – the Takagi connection could help Verdy be safe.
- Machida Zelvia
- Stadium: Nozuta Sports Park
- Last year: 7th in J2.
What to expect in 2017: After a superb 2016, it will be difficult to produce an encore this year, but there’s no reason to suspect a huge downturn.
7th was probably beyond the wildest dreams of most Zelvia supporters – and the fact that they finished level on points with sixth placed Okayama was a phenomenal achievement. They were spearheaded by forward Yuki Nakashima whose renaissance after a couple of down years in Yamagata was one of the stories of the season in the second tier. He started every game, scoring 14 times, and provided a reliable totem figure for others to play off. He formed a good understanding with Koji Suzuki, until a serious achilles injury ruined Suzuki’s season at the mid-way point.
In midfield, the ever dependable Ri Han Jae was the beating heart of the side, and was more often than not partnered with Kota Morimura there. Naoki Soma’s preferred 4-4-2 demands two all rounders in the centre, and in Ri & Morimura he found a willing & able pair.
As far as acquisitions go, Zelvia haven’t been ultra active this winter. Junki Endo, a young quick forward who didn’t really fulfill his potential in Gifu has been given a chance to prove his talent. Montenegrin defender Boris Tatar arrives from Laathi in Finland while Kodai Fujii, also a defender, has signed from Kamatamare Sanuki. Those two will help to try & replace Calvin Jong-a-Pin who made the short trip to Yokohama FC this off-season.
Key player: Ri Han Jae. As long as the North Korean is in that midfield, Machida won’t be found wanting there. He isn’t the most exciting player, but what he does well – defensive work, keeping the ball simple – meshes with exactly what Machida are about. Going on 35, it might be stretch to expect to play in 40+ games like he did in 2016, but as long as he is fit & able, he should be the first name on Soma’s teamsheet.