To the north & east of Tokyo respectively, Saitama & Chiba host some of the biggest names (not to mention brightest colours) in the J.League. Starting with a team that comes into 2017 with a serious chip on their shoulder….

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(image: Urawa Reds website)

  • Urawa Reds
  • Stadium: Saitama Stadium 2002
  • Last year: 1st overall in J1, runners up in the Championship stage

What to expect in 2017: Another assault on the title. Last year, in a a very Reds kind of way, they actually garnered the most points over the year, but fell short in the Championship game. This year, expect them to play with the aforementioned chip on their shoulder in an attempt to right the (perceived) wrongs of last year.

This season hasn’t seen a really big signing, a signing that they could arguably have done with to give the whole club a lift, instead focusing on signings that add depth rather than improve drastically a certain position. Kazuki Nagasawa ended his loan spell at JEF United and has returned a better player, and forward Ado Onaiwu followed him from the Fukuda Denshi Arena. Onaiwu is an intriguing player with good physical attributes, although the fact that he couldn’t make himself a regular at a J2 club should temper expectations, and he’ll inevitably be behind Urawa’ KLM (Koroki, Lee, Muto) strike force in the pecking order.

Another player to return from a successful loan spell is Shinya Yajima, the attacking midfielder having spent the last two years at Fagiano Okayama, honing his craft and helping them to the play-off final last year. But in much the same way that I can’t really see Onaiwu making an instant impact, Yajima will have to do well to immediately nail down a starting berth. Daisuke Kikuchi arrives from Shonan Bellmare to provide depth/competition (delete as appropriate) on the left hand side of midfield while Rafael Silva, a striker that scored eleven times in a struggling Albirex Niigata side last year, will offer something different up front. The signings/additions aren’t underwhelming, but they lack a real star player that would instantly elevate them. Manager Mihailo Petrovic obviously believes that evolution not revolution is the way to go for his side, but make no mistake – they will be up at the business end of the table when all is said and done.

Key player: Wataru Endo. If there is one weakness in the Urawa team it is at centre back. That might sound strange for a team that conceded only 28 goals last season, but it cropped up from time to time in important games last year.

Urawa play a three centre back system, those three centre backs being Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo & Ryota Moriwaki. Makino & Moriwaki are, I believe, susceptible to both balls behind the wing backs, and through the channels – a prime example of this was when Makino was exposed by Yuma Suzuki in the Championship game last year. While not slow, Makino & Moriwaki rely on physicality and positioning to win and if they miss out on that part of their game, it will be up to Endo (and goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa) to bail them out. Endo has a been good for a while, but hasn’t yet made the step up to very good defender yet. If Endo can help cover his fellow central defenders and use his ball skills to continue to help build attacks, he could develop into Urawa’s defensive key. However, he needs to keep an eye on his play – mistakes like the one that gifted Yuma Suzuki the winner in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup will be intolerable. It promises to be an important year in the professional development of the mild mannered defenders career.

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  • Omiya Ardija
  • Stadium: NACK5 Stadium
  • Last year: 5th in J1

What to expect in 2017: Another good year, but probably not good enough for the top five again. Last year, The Squirrels played some lovely football on their way to a fine fifth placed finish. Akihiro Ienaga excelled on his return to the top division, they got a valuable contribution from Ataru Esaka, while Dragan Mrdja’s physicality up front made them a difficult team to defend – even though Mrdja’s goalscoring stats weren’t up to his high standards. One of the main disappointments from last year was the form of winter signing from JEF United Nejc Pecnik. The Slovenian forward scored just one league goal from his 21 appearances, and he will look to do a lot better this time around.

It has been a mixed off season for Ardija, starting with the departure of Ienaga to Kawasaki Frontale. He split some of the supporters there due to a questionable work ethic, but his production will be hard to fill. Given the first chance of that (presumably) will be Genki Omae, the forward signed from Shimizu S-Pulse in the winter. Omae stayed with the Shizuoka club when they were relegated in 2015, and played a huge part (after recovering from a serious injury) in their phenomenal end of season run. Omae will probably not be an absolute like-for-like replacement of Ienaga, but stylistically they are somewhat similar. One player they will miss is winger Jin Izumisawa after he made the move to Gamba Osaka. He mainly played on the left, using his slight frame & turn of pace to get past opposition right backs. For a team that didn’t score freely last year, any kind of drop off in chance creation cold hurt them.

Omiya will still have some creativity in the form of Shigeru Yokotani and the thoroughly underwhelming Aria Jiasuru Hasegawa but a lot of the buzz in Omiya is about another youngster who has followed the same career path as Ataru Esaka. Yusuke Segawa had an outstanding year at Gunma in J2 last year, scoring thirteen times and creating a further eleven from his forward position. He tended to line up in the centre, but was prone to drifting out to the right, which caused consternation in opposition defences because the question then becomes “who marks him?” – The full back? The centre back? The defensive midfielder? It was this confusion that Segawa was so good at creating in 2016, and it is that kind of elusiveness that Omiya are hoping he can bring to J1.

On the flip side of their (relative) lack of goals, the defence in 2016 played well, conceding just 36 goals – quietly third best in J1. Last year centre backs Hiroyuiki Komoto & Kosuke Kikuchi were the pillars at the back and project to be so this year as well. In goal they’ll have a choice to make between Hitoshi Shiota (who closed out the season as first choice) or Nobuhiro Kato.

Key player: Ataru Esaka. The forward shone in his first season at the top level after signing from J2 side ThespaKusatsu Gunma the previous winter. Quick, decisive, direct & skillful, Esaka has the requisite tools to become an excellent forward in this league. Comfortable up front or playing just off the top, his role will take on more significance this year given the departures of Ienaga & Izumisawa.

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(image: reysol.co.jp)

  • Kashiwa Reysol
  • Stadium: Hitachidai
  • Last year: 8th in J1

What to expect in 2017: It is difficult to assess with Kashiwa, but I believe the arrow is pointing upwards. After a season in which they finished mid-table, they will certainly be looking to improve on that record this time out.

This year, the addition of Ramon Lopes, who has swapped the yellow of Vegalta Sendai for the yellow of Kashiwa, promises to make Reysol more dangerous than they were last year.

But more than that, this is a very young squad – the second youngest in J1 (after Gamba Osaka) with 10 of their squad aged 21 or under at the start of the season. In goal they have the next Japanese international (in my opinion) in outstanding young goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura. In front of him, Kashiwa could well be playing a couple of 20 years olds at centre half – Shinnosuke Nakatani & Yuta Nakayama have both come up through the Reysol youth ranks together and have bags of potential. Nakatani in particular looks like he could be the future for not only Reysol, but for Japan as well. A very promising signing to add to this young defence is right back Ryuta Koike who joined from Renofa Yamaguchi. He had an outstanding year for the J2 side in 2016, and this move to Reysol means that he will have moved up a league in every year of his career (JFL – J3 – J2 with Renofa, and now J1 with Kashiwa).

Further forward, you do need some experienced heads and in holding midfielder Hidekazu Otani they have a player that has played nearly 300 league games for the club, and he’ll probably get help from the energetic Yusuke Kobayashi in the engine room. In the attacking third, Junya Ito had an excellent 2016 scoring seven goals from his right sided midfield position, while they also have Yuki Otsu & Kosuke Takatomi to call upon. This is a young and exciting team that should only get better.

Key player: Cristiano. This was a very difficult choice because I thought about Junya Ito or Kosuke Nakamura here. But this is kind of a nod to a veteran. Cristiano is one of those rare breeds – a foreign player who came to Japan as (for the want of a better phrase) “an entry level foreign player” and has worked his way up to a “big club”. He started his career in Japan at Tochigi SC and from there progressed to Ventforet Kofu before arriving in Kashiwa.

Once a bit of a figure to laugh at because of his penchant to shoot from literally anywhere on the pitch, Cristiano has developed into an all round threat. He enjoyed a productive year last year, as he developed a very good understanding with fellow Brazilian import Diego Oliveira. In many ways, the arrival of Oliveira actually added to Cristiano’s game rather than detract from it because Oliveira was happy to work as the target man in the centre, which in turn let Cristiano revert to a more floating role where he had the licence to go wherever he felt he could dictate play. That position was often on the left, and it was from there, cutting inside, where often did his damage. He was Reysol’s creator-in-chief and this year, with Ramos Lopes set to take even more attention (and thus create even more space for him) Cristiano, and his electric yellow hair, looks like he could have another good season at Hitachidai.

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