In the shadow of Mount Fuji, Shizuoka is a traditional football hotbed of Japan. The clubs there have endured a lean time in recent years, but there are once again green shoots of prosperity (if you can imagine such a thing) with both Jubilo Iwata & Shimizu S-Pulse in J1, and two newer teams making their way in the professional ranks. We start this preview with a club that has found their way back to the big time after a one year holiday in J2….

 

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  • Shimizu S-Pulse
  • Stadium: IAI Stadium Nihondaira
  • Last year: 2nd in J2

What to expect in 2017: This is one of the more difficult teams to predict. On name value alone, they should be mid-table, but they took an awful long time to get rolling in J2, eventually just pipping Matsumoto Yamaga to the second automatic promotion spot and thus avoiding the nervousness of the play-offs. Having said that, when they did get set they were virtually unplayable; A combination of speed, guile, force & creativity, led by the twin prongs of Chong Tese & Genki Omae.

BUT…..Genki Omae is no longer there having moved to Omiya Ardija this winter and so S-Pulse will be a bit of a mystery until the season stats to unfold. The perennial loan-star from Sanfrecce Hiroshima Gakuto Notsuda takes his freelance footballing tour to Shimizu, but expectations are to be tempered, because, despite his talent, he hasn’t really been a hit anywhere in his career to date. One very important signing could be goalkeeper Yuji Rokutan who arrives from Vegalta Sendai. He is a bit of a reclamation project, but he is a talented goalkeeper – although one that fell out of favour in Sendai last year. Shimizu used four different goalkeepers last year, and so would probably like someone to nail down the position for their own. I think S-Pulse will probably miss emerging right back Genta Miura who made that spot his own in Shimizu’s barnstorming end of season run. Two foreign defenders have arrived at the club Kanu (from Chonburi in Thailand) and Brazilian defender Leandro Freire will look to shore up a defence that looked dodgy at times in J2 last year.

Key player: Chong Tese. The North Korean forward absolutely dismantled J2 on his way to scoring 26 league goals and forming a formidable partnership with Genki Omae. Omae has left for the similarly orange climes of Omiya Ardija, so that means a lot more responsibility will rest on the the broad shoulders of Tese. On his day, Tese combines the brute force of an old school physical number 9, with an underrated delicate touch. He’ll need support, because I don’t think he can carry the team on his back in J1, but when he is on form, he is very difficult to handle.

 

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  • Jubilo Iwata
  • Stadium: Yamaha Stadium
  • Last year:

What to expect in 2017: Nakamura fever, no doubt. But the impact that Shunsuke will undoubtedly have will be somewhat negated by the loss of striker Jay Bothroyd. He left Iwata at the end of last year, presumably looking to land a bigger contract – one that it is hard to argue he didn’t deserve given his goalscoring exploits. But that new contract didn’t emerge, and now Jubilo have a huge gap to fill. The signing of Kengo Kawamata, coming off a highly disappointing spell at Nagoya Grampus, is an attempt to offset Jay’s departure, but it is a bit of a gamble. Don’t forget also that Jubilo lost star midfielder Yuki Kobayashi halfway through last season too when he moved to Heerenveen in Holland, so this is a team that is still trying to replace those talents.

Shunsuke Nakamura will help placate the fans, but it is fair to wonder what kind of impact he will have on the field. His dead ball isn’t up for discussion, it is one of the best this writer has ever seen. Period. But can he and Daisuke Matsui – with a combined age of 73 – hold up in the midfield this year? The emergence of Hayao Kawaba gives some cause for optimism, and the reliable Yoshiaki Ota will once again on hand to help provide ammunition for Kawamata & Brazilian forward Adailton.

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Key player: Krzysztof Kamiński. I wanted to say Shunsuke, but I feel that Jubilo won’t be defined by what they do in the attacking third, but how well they can keep teams at bay. Polish goalkeeper Kaminski has been a success story since arriving when they were in J2, and while he does make the occasional mistake, he is one of the premier shot-stoppers in Japan. Having said that, only four teams had a worse goals against record last season (and three of them were relegated) and given Jay’s goals won’t be there anymore, it is imperative that things are tightened up at the back. Kaminski has a lot of responsibility in his gloves this season.

 

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(image: Fujieda MYFC website)

  • Fujieda MYFC
  • Stadium: Fujieda Sports Park
  • Last year: 7th in J3

What to expect in 2017: Whisper it, but Fujieda were very quietly one of the success stories of 2017. The very small club with a beautiful picturesque stadium in the Shizuoka countryside outperformed expectations by finishing in the top half of J3.

This year, they will look to kick on in the hope that they haven’t hit their ceiling. Without doubt the star of the team last year was midfielder Yuichi Enamoto who, from seemingly nowhere, had a career year hitting 12 goals from his midfield position. A lot of buzz has been created by Fujieda’s signing of the first (I believe…) Cambodian to play in the J.League, and a lot of eyes will be on Chan Vathanaka to see whether he can be the first south east Asian player to really, truly make a mark in Japan. As an attacking midfielder, he will be tasked with helping Enamoto in the goals department, as well as help support new signing Ryota Doi. The forward is a new signing from Grulla Morioka and has a couple of lean years since his breakout J3 season. Fujieda will hope that he can travel the same path as Tsugutoshi Oishi – an ex-Fujieda forward whose form earned him a move to a “bigger club”.

Key player: Taisuke Mizuno. This is a little bit of an indulgence for this writer, because in my second life I’m an FC Gifu supporter and I have been a fan of Mizuno for a while. He arrived at Gifu as a winger (on loan from Nagoya) but struggled to make a mark until he was shifted into the centre of midfield by then coach Ruy Ramos. Mizuno is a ball playing midfielder, although he is also very high energy and works hard, but I think he suffered from playing in an under pressure side as Gifu were almost always battling against relegation. I think if Fujieda can be a team that plays without fear, Mizuno can be an excellent midfielder at this level.

 

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(image: Azul Claro Numazu website)

  • Azul Claro Numazu
  • Stadium: Ashitaka Stadium
  • Last year: 3rd in the JFL – promoted to J3

What to expect in 2017: First of all, a big welcome to the newest member of the J.League!! Numazu finished 3rd in the JFL last year, and were granted promotion to the big leagues on the back of that.

Numazu have been working towards this ascension for some time having been one of the original applicants when J3 was first devised. Ambition was there, but at that point the pure footballing infrastructure & performance wasn’t and so they’ve had to wait until all strands merged in such a way as to show that the club is strong enough.

As Yokohama FC have proved, having a football icon in your ranks does wonders for your PR and Numazu have ex-Jubilo & Japan superstar Masashi “Gon” Nakayama in their squad. He won’t play an awful lot, but he will be on hand for club promotion – which is actually much better for them anyway. As for the squad itself, a lot of players were let go this off season (some for footballing reasons, some because they didn’t want to turn pro) and there have obviously been a few additions to the squad.

Experience is key, and Teruyoshi Ito – the Shimizu S-Pulse icon – has it in buckets. He hasn’t played a lot in the last two years (which were spent in J3 at Nagano & Akita) but at 42, he’s happy to be back home in Shizuoka. Forward Ryota Watanabe has joined from Ehime FC (off the back of scoring twice for Nagano Parceiro last year), while there’s an interesting signing in Shimon Watanabe, a defender who spent the last two years in Cairns, Australia playing for FNQ Heat.

Key player: Kohei Kurata. Kurata had spent the last two and a half years at Numazu on loan from Matsumoto Yamaga, and so it was virtually a no-brainer for the club to sign him on a permanent basis. He played a key role in 2015 and looked set to be Numazu’s main man last year until a knee ligament injury sidelined him for almost the entire season. Numazu stood by him, and they will hope he has regained full fitness because he will probably be vital for them. An attacking midfielder with a good eye for goal, he will (fitness permitting) be the fulcrum of this emerging Numazu team.

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