The Koshinetsu region, which I only really know due to it being one of the mentioned regions on the NHK (Japanese state broadcaster) weather report, stretches from Niigata in the north, through to Nagano & Yamanashi in the centre of Japan. Starting with our friends in the north, we look at a team that narrowly escaped relegation from J1 last year, but might have a hard time doing the same this year…..
(image: Albirex Niigata English site)
- Albirex Niigata
- Stadium: Denka Big Swan
- Last year: 15th in J1
What to expect in 2017: Problems. A new, relatively untested manager. No Leo Silva. No Rafael Silva. No Cortez. No Michael James. No Ken Matsubara. That is quite the negative list for a team which barely stayed in J1 last year, and a list which, I believe, puts them in trouble this season.
To try & accentuate some positives, they will still have the loyal support of the faithful that make their way to the Big Swan on a fortnightly basis. They could have some vibrancy up front IF Musashi Suzuki can start to deliver on some of his potential, and if new Brazilian forward Roni acclimatizes quickly. Ryohei Yamazaki is not the answer up front for the men in orange. In midfield they do have a young player in Kei Koizumi who could grow into a good player – he’s versatile, athletic & not without skill, but they have to hope that new Brazilian midfielder Jean Patrick can slip into Leo Silva’s old role. When one of your best signings is Kisho Yano, you know that the bar is pretty low. It could be a long season in Niigata.
Key player: Roni. Rafael Silva’s eleven goals last year have gone (to Urawa) and someone, somehow needs to replace that production. Masaru Kato, possibly Albirex’s most creative player, will have a part to play, but if Niigata can’t finish their chances, they could very well find themselves adrift early on. Roni (or any of the strikers) has to hit double figures this year. If they don’t, Niigata will go down.
- Nagano Parceiro
- Stadium: Nagano U-Stadium
- Last year:
What to expect in 2017: A promotion push (and about time too). Last season was another wasted season for the men from the north of their prefecture. They no doubt took pleasure in Matsumoto’s failure in the J2 play-offs (there is a very intense rivalry between the residents of the two cities) but should they look closer to home they’ll find that their potential is being woefully untapped.
An outstanding football facility (one that puts many J2 teams to shame) is still being used to hold J3 football, even though the idea was that the stadium would be merely the formality needed to take them to promotion. But….it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Parceiro finished third last year – although it was a very distant third, finishing as they did nine points behind champions Oita Trinita. Lack of goals did for them, managing a measly 33 from their 30 games – only four teams had a worse goalscoring record. To remedy that, they’ve brought in Yosuke Mikami from Kataller Toyama and the relatively untried Hidemasa Kobayashi from the now disbanded Fagiano Okayama Next in the JFL. To say they are underwhelming signings would probably be right on point – although Mikami did have a good season at Toyama last year. They will probably look to club icon Yuji Unozawa and Yuki Sato to bounce back after a fallow year in 2016. In other moves, winger Kohei Yamada moved to FC Gifu, ‘keeper Johnny Leoni to Tochigi and Sai Kanakubo’s career will wind down (after such a promising start) at Vanraure Hachinohe.
Key player: Yuki Sato. The hybrid winger forward is Nagano’s wild card. Comfrotable anywhere across the front line, if he is on his game is hard for a defender to pick up. He likes to drop behind Unozawa, with whom he has an excellent understadning, bordering on the telepathic, and plays very well when facing the goal & running at defenders. Nagano need goals. Their defence was very good last year, so even if that only remains stable, all they need to do is add a few more goals to their repertoire to be serious players in 2017.
- Matsumoto Yamaga
- Stadium: Alwin Stadium, Matsumoto
- Last year: 3rd in J2
What to expect in 2017: Another assault on the J2 Championship. Last year it looked like it would fall into place for Yasuharu Sorimachi’s men, but lost the run-in stare down with Shimizu S-Pulse (who clinched second place) and then suffered a back-breaking 1-2 home defeat in the play-off semi final. Lots of soul searching has been done in Matsumoto this off season, and they feel ready to attack once again.
On the face of it, their arrivals this off season don’t jump off the page at you. Two Brazilians, Serginho & Diego, will look to provide the spark that the Brazilians last failed to give them. For Yamaga, it is more that they’ve managed to keep the nucleus of the team that came so close last year, and that familiarity will surely work in their favour. Hayuma Tanaka & Masaki Iida anchor an imposing defensive unit, Paulinho & Yudai Iwama protect them, and up front they bring back top scorer Hiroyuki Takasaki and versatile forward piece Kohei Mishima.
One piece of their puzzle that they will have to replace is in goal, where Daniel Schmidt, so impressive last season, has returned to parent club Vegalta Sendai, and the favourite for the GK position is the returning Tomohiko Murayama who returns from a one year term at Shonan Bellmare. One surprising decision was the decision to let Kohei Kiyama join fellow J2 side Fagiano Okayama. Kiyama has been a dependable part of Matsumoto’s recent success story and so he will be missed at the Alwin Stadium.
Key player: Masaki Iida. The towering central defender is, in essence, what Matsumoto are about ideologically – strong, hard working, iron willed with an almost partisan sense of pride. He isn’t the most technically gifted of centre backs you’ll see, but strikers have to work extremely hard to get the better of him. He also pops up with goals from time to time, in fact last year he scored 7 times, good for third best in the Yamaga squad. Matsumoto are no better represented than when they are by Iida.
(image: Ventforet Kofu website)
- Ventforet Kofu
- Stadium: Yamanashi Bank Stadium, Kofu
- Last year: 14th in J1
What to expect in 2017: Struggles. Kofu, at times, bored themselves to survival last year. They finished in 14th – one point above the drop zone and scored less than a goal a game across the season. They won the same number of games as relegated Nagoya & Shonan, but managed to avoid defeat just enough times to keep their head above water for another year.
The above part sounds negative, but in reality they can’t really do much more. Kofu is a lovely part of Japan (if you like the countryside & beautiful scenery) but it is hard to attract truly top class talent there. They have to substitute star power for organization & hard work, and that has worked for them in as far as they’ve stayed up the last four years despite never finishing higher than 13th.
As for this year, manager Tatsuma Yoshida will hope that his two Brazilian forwards Wilson & Dudu strike up an immediate understanding. Yuki Horigome returns after a very productive season at Kyoto Sanga last year and could be relied upon to shoulder the burden of creativity. The signings of veteran pair Shohei Ogura (Gamba) & Akihiro Hyodo (Mito), while very much in Kofu’s MO of signing experienced players, doesn’t exactly set the pulses racing. At the back, it would be remiss not mention that 42 year old Yukio Tsuchiya is still going strong, and given Kofu’s relative lack of squad depth he could well be called upon to play a decent sized role in 2017 as well.
Key player: Wilson. It was more than a mild surprise when Wilson swapped the bright yellow of Vegalta Sendai for the wine & blue of Kofu. He enjoyed a fine spell in the north of Japan, becoming a firm fans favourite while scoring 40 goals over his five year spell at the Yurtec Stadium.
Now, he finds himself as the projected spearhead of a team that, in all probability, is not going to create too many chances. When Kofu do create, they NEED to finish – and in that regard Ventforet need the 2012-13 version of Wilson. In those seasons he scored 13 goals each, and one feels he at least has to duplicate that form if Kofu are to stand a fighting chance of staying in J1.