Starting at the top, with the team that must be favorites to do it again... What are Kashima Antlers chances this campaign? The "loss" of Gaku Shibasaki should not affect the team at all, in my opinion. In fact, his likely early return may well disrupt the team later in the season. Leo Silva, Ryota Nagaki and the experienced MItsuo Ogasawara should be more than enough cover for the missing midfielder. It should not be forgotten that Shibasaki was little more than a bit player for much of the season as he was dropped for Nagaki, who was probably seen as a gradual replacement for Ogasawara, but ended up playing alongside his captain more often than not. The fact that Shibasaki has been watched, then ignored by various national team managers should give a clue to the type of player he isn't. I digressed, but no big loss to the champions?
Pedro Junior, in from Vissel Kobe, will only add to their already impressive attaching options, while the key addition for 2017 could well be (yet another!) Korean goalkeeper, Kwouk Sun-tae. The fact that the club have taken steps to replace their two experienced, yet aging stars in goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata and Ogasawara speaks volumes and installs then as favorites for me.
What can be said about Urawa Reds that hasn't been said before? They fall at the final fence so often we now expect it, so could it be their year, finally? Uh, no, I don't think so! For a change, they haven't raided Sanfrecce this season and their incoming players SEEM to be slightly underwhelming on paper. Sure, Rafael Silva scored goals for Albirex Niigata - come to think of it, as I write, scoring goals for them last year maybe WAS a big effort! JEF United have given up Ado Onaiwu, who has shown some potential but most of it is still well-hidden. Shinya Yajima impressed for the Under 23 national team but will be well down the pecking order, I would like to see him get his chance but is he a Reds' type player (what's a Reds' type player, I hear you ask!)? Perhaps the fact that they have not made that big signing will lessen expectations and, if those "lesser" signings can click, a team they may be.
I won't be the only one who is concerned that none of the expected back three seem to be "real" defenders? If the back line is as porous as it is expected to be, defensive midfield is the key to this team. And goals! Obviously. In a nutshell, not Reds' year?
Yoshito Okubo is gone. Kendo Nakamura is getting on a bit. Elsinho will miss the first three months of the season, weakening an already leaky defense. Will the departure of manager Yahiro Kazama make any difference to a team that seemed to do what they wanted - good and bad - on the field in the past few seasons? Fun to watch in that impure football way, Frontale never actually win anything. Kazama has been replaced by his right hand man... So no change really? Or does Toru Oniki have his own ideas?
Incoming we see Hiroyuki Abe from Gamba Osaka, a player with pace, and a work ethic to die for. He's also a good finisher... Going to be useful in helping replace Okubo's goals. Presumably on the other side of an attacking midfield, in comes Akihiro Ienaga, the Glenn Hoddle of Japan. Ienaga has SO much ability, so much skill, but has rarely shown what we all know he is capable of. He finally seemed to be clicking in an overachieving Omiya Ardija and looked settled so, what happens? He moves on. If he settles quickly, and continues where he left off at Ardija, he, and Abe, will allow Yu Kobayashi to pick up the missing Okubo goals, perhaps.
As with so many J.League teams, Kawasaki have imported an unknown Brazilian and, as I'll no doubt say again in this piece about various imports, if this boy - Rhayner - clicks, that's a lot of attacking talent on display. If the defense can improve even a little, and those goals do flow, Frontale will be challenging . But will that be all?
A new, purpose-built, football-specific stadium that holds almost 40,000 fans was THE place to visit for fans last season, and the place for away teams to give their best. With the home team settled in to their new surroundings, and maturing youngsters complemented
After a quiet 2016 pre-season, those in the know expected little from Gamba last season as the team continued long-put off rebuilding. Nevertheless, the team still made it to a cup final and into the ACL for 2017 and, with improvements in incoming transfers, as well as maturing youngsters, fans will be expecting nothing less than a tilt at the top this season.
Yasuhito Endo continues as captain, with the versatile Yasuyuki Konno still a very good option, also. The biggest name in midfield, though, could well be (should be?) Yosuke Ideguchi, who broke into the 1st XI, then the national team set up in 2016. He also walked away with various awards, including a spot in the J1 Best XI. If he can be convinced to stick around for a few years he is a player that a team can be (re)built around. Agents may have other ideas but fans will be hoping he stays loyal to his team for now.
Incoming notables include cover for an already pretty solid back line. With defenders Koki Yonekura, Hiroki Fujiharu and Daiki Niwa all getting a look in with Samurai Blue squads - as well as goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi, of course - and Jaesuk Oh playing for Korea, the last line for Gamba has been bolstered by Fabio - a steady centre back from Yokohaha F?Marinos - and 21-year-old utility back Genta Miura from Shimizu S-Pulse.
Further up the field Gamba allowed both Kotaro Omori (Vissel Kobe) and Hiroyuki Abe (Kawasaki Frontale) to move on and, to help fill the gap, have relieved JEF United Chiba of the services of Haruya Ide, a very promising player who is still only 22, but has 99 league appearances for JEF under his belt (and 15 goals).
Jin Izumisawa, the epitome of the speedy little winger, has also been picked up from Omiya Ardija. Izumisawa knows the area well, having been at Hannan University for his youth football, and he should settle in fast. Another player to watch out for will be Ritsu Doan who is still only 18, but seems to have been on our radar for years. With Abe out Doan could well be the man to fill the spot in right midfield, and he won't be found lacking.
Is the J1 Championship, and a cup, or even better, out of the question for Gamba Osaka in 2017?
Akihiro Ienaga has left the 2016 over-reaching "other" Saitama team but has been "replaced" by former S-Pulse livewire Genki Omae. While Ienaga had a magic spark once a game or so, his workrate was often lacking... Omae does not lack in effort. Could be a good trade! Jin Izumisawa will be another big loss for Ardija and critics might not be able to see enough goals coming from Omae, Ataru Esaka, Nejc Pecnik and Dragan Mrdja and the points may well (again?) need to come from sterling defensive work from the backline, led by Hiroyuki Komoto and Kosuke Kikuchi. Will do well to reach the heights of last season, but won't be in danger of struggling?
Hajime Moriyasu is JSoccer's favourite coach and, if we are to put our heart on the proverbial sleeve, he's in our Best XI EVER for Japan! And, thankfully the powers-that-be at Sanfrecce also seem to agree, having the patience to stand by him as he developed a team (and winning three championships!) and then staying loyal as the "fallow years" arrived. Young players are always coming through at Sanfrecce, while veterans have been phased out (this year Koji Morisaki retired and Hisato Sato was moved along). The most interesting move to the outside viewer might be that Peter Utaka (equal top-scorer in J1, lest we forget!) was not kept on (and jettisoned by Shimizu S-Pulse, also - but that's another story that I must remain tight-lipped upon!). To replace Utaka and Sato (and not forgetting Takuma Asano, who moved on later in the season), in comes Masato Kudo - from Vancouver Whitecaps. The former Kashiwa Reysol striker WILL score goals, but is going to need assistance! Can Anderson Lopes and Felipe do the trick?
Picking up where they left off in 2016 would seem to be the way to go for Vissel Kobe. An impressive 2nd Stage saw them just miss out on a Championship play-off spot and their various ins and outs should keep them challenging for the top spot this season. J1 top scorer Leandro is still in town, as is an ever-improving Nilton in midfield. Goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu played an important part in the 2016 campaign and looks set for another good season. The loss of Pedro Junior to Kashima Antlers will be smoothed over by, among other things the return of Keijiro Ogawa from an injury-stricken season, the addition of former Nelsinho Reysol target man, Junya Tanaka, and the continued emergence of various talented youngsters - in particular Seigo Kobayashi (another player who missed a lot of the 2016 action), Yoshiki Matsushita and Yuya Nakasaki.
In midfield, a little class and experience has been added with the (once mooted as on the way to Manchester United!) Hideto Takahashi, as well as the dynamism of Kotaro Omori, from Gamba. The team to watch, along with FC Tokyo this season?
Kashiwa Reysol -
Goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura is expected to push on up and break his way into the national team squad, and then be the stalwart of the Japanese backline for 15 years - if all goes to plan! This, of course can only be good for Kashiwa Reysol, who can hopefully build a defence around this lad. Plenty of youth incoming or growing from within at the club and, in particular, Junya Ito seems to be developing well - along with quite a few more of those youngsters.
Up front, Ramon Lopes has joined his compatriot Cristiano (and other Braziian, Diego Oliveira), while Kosuke Taketomi will also be looking for goals. Yuki Otsu needs to find his form and help drag his team up into the top five, while the aforementioned Diego needs to settle in to a team for more than a few months (see his career to date) but between all of the attacking players they have Reysol should be OK for goals. Will the kids be up to it at the back? Probably more up to the task than Moriwaki, Makino and Endo!
Seemingly everyone's dark horses this season, although can they really qualify as that if everyone thinks they are?! FC Tokyo have made some shrewd and interesting moves in the transfer market, not least being the poaching of Yoshito Okubo from local rivals Frontale, although for me coaxing former Sanfrecce utility man Yojiro Takahagi to the capital is even more interesting. Takahagi can create, destroy, or put his foot in when needed and could be a key player for FCT this campaign.
Further up the field Keisuke Nagai - a player who gets overshadowed by how fast he can run - has joined the cause, but will need coaching both on and off the field to make the most of that speed. If he can mature, and improve his decision-making, he could be just what Okubo needs alongside him to make the space and the chances.
Shoya Nakajima, a player I've been raving about for a while must make this season his own. Another chance-maker, but also chance-taker. Like Okubo, he's not afraid to shoot from anywhere, and we can expect some spectacular goals this year as the diminutive youngster matures into the player I know he can be.
In the manner that only Japanese clubs seem to do (hello Cerezo, especially!) Keisuke Ota has also been welcomed back from an unspectacular sojourn overseas and will be looking to prove something in the left back position. And then there's the last line of defence. Akihiro Hayashi has moved from former FC Tokyo manager, Massimo Ficcadenti"s Sagan Tosu and could be a major player in his team's championship possibilities. Dark horse? Or favorite? It could be the rumored behind the scenes management problems that decide whether this team is allowed to reach the potential of a very exciting set of parts!
On paper there seems to be little to suggest that Sagan Tosu will be anything more than an over-achieving mid-table club, the loss of goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi this season, and the lack of a real replacement for Korean star Kim Min-woo, who left during the last campaign looking to be big blows that hav set them back.
The arrival of Yuji Ono - former F.Marinos forward who suffered an injury-hit couple of seasons in Belgium is arguably the biggest news they have for their fans, and he was hardly courted by the "big clubs" when his availability became known. Yuzo Kobayashi, who was released by the divisive front office management of Yokohama F.Marinos) is a steady and experienced player but not the spark that this team really needs.
To add to the concern I feel for Sagan, they have taken on goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, who left Japan to escape the pressure that "over-training" had brought on. Sources believe that he is still not fully recovered and the move is a risk - both for the player's overall state of mind, and for the team who may rely too heavily on him, thereby exacerbating any problem there may be. All of us in the game will be hoping that Gonda is back in a healthy frame of mind and has an excellent season.
Jubilant survived by the skin of their teeth last season. Their 2nd Stage form was arguably their worst second half of a season, ever! If their 2017 campaign begins where they left off, trouble is brewing. If a brand new start is seen, there may be a chance for survival. Kengo Kawamata COULD easily eclipse the departed Jay Bothroyd, but he seems to lack the grit and commitment when the going gets tough, and it most probably will. Adailton is still around and hopefully for his team, even more settled in now. A partnership could flourish there.
What the team really needed to do was replace the talent of Yuki Kobayashi, who left for Heerenveen in Holland mid-season. They may well have done that in a lad you may have heard of - Shunsuke Nakamura! Undoubtedly talented, and possessing of a great free kick. But also undoubtably injury prone and getting on in years.
In defence Shohei Takahashi has arrived from Vissel Kobe. A hothead at Omiya Ardija, the Centre back has matured and improved under manager Nelsinho in Kobe but was up against too much talent to keep a consistent starting place. At Jubilo he could well come into his own as a strong defensive leader. Watch this space!
In a nutshell, if we see a consistent Nakamura, and all that is available from Adailton and Kawamata, Jubilo might survive with ease. If not, Relegationistan (copyright J.League Regista!) beckons.
After surviving by the skin of their teeth - yet again, it would seem - Ventforet have made some changes for the better for the new campaign. Former Kashiwa Reysol manager Tatsuma Yoshida has signed on and his methods will see his team either flying higher than ever before or sinking like a stone! There will be changes on the field and Yuki Horigomi's return from Kyoto Sanga - a deal pretty much done while Yoshida sat next to me, using MY phone to talk to new Kyoto boss Takanori Nunobe (another story!) - as well as the signing of Wilson from Vegalta Sendai seem promising moves.
Perhaps just as important in the new season will be the absence of some of the (much) older players of recent years, although 42-year-old Yukio "Bauru" Tsuchiya will still be wearing the shirt, and, for me, that's a good thing. If the slowly-improving Dudu can continue to find the net, while forging an understanding with Wilson Ventforet Kofu may surprise a few of you this season!
Albirex have lost Michael James and Ken Matsubara from the centre of their defense. They've lost Leo Silva from midfield general duties, and they've lost their biggest goal scorer in Rafael Silva. I really can not see a silver (or Silva!) lining for the team. Hiroshi Ibusuki and Musashi Suzuki have the potential to break out but how much longer do the fans have to wait? Ryohei Yamazaki is a little live wire, sure, but he doesn't take a game by the scruff of the neck and change it.
If the return of Kisho Yano is supposed to lift the team, they're in trouble. An old boy forward returning as a right back (will he stay there?) does not a new season make. A Brazilian forward, Roni, has come in, as an unknown quantity. If he's not one of the few no-name Brazilians who come in and instantly make a name for themselves, Albirex will be in trouble from the start of the season.
It would seem that Consadole are most J.League-watchers' favorites to go down in 2017. They may have come up as champions of J2 but, after amassing an impressive lead at the top of the division around the half-way point and beyond, they then managed to hold on to the top spot by the skin of their teeth after an unimpressive final section and, if they come into the season in that form they will struggle from the start. Their highest profile players are the admittedly very experienced former Japanese internationals Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto, but both are injury prone and getting on in years. One of the growing J.League contingent of decent Korean goalkeepers is between the sticks - Gu Sung-yun - but he should expect to be busy! They'll be hoping for goals from Ken Tokura, a player never short of confidence, but he may be ploughing a lone furrows up front. A squad that seems short of in-depth J1-suited talent might be the polite way to put this?
Welcome back to the top flight, Cerezo Osaka. And welcome back Hiroshi Kiyotake. While the likes of Kiyo, Yamaguchi and Kakitani will be taking the headlines, the key piece in the Cerezo puzzle could well be new manager Yoon Jong-hwan, who was instrumental in taking small town Sagan Tosu to the top of the J1 table before (... wait, that's a completely different story!).
A team that boasted so much talent - including the much-heralded Diego Forlan, of course, was relegated after struggling to gel as a team. Cerezo took the hard way back into J1, scraping through a play-off against Kyoto Sanga and what Joon does with his pieces will be key to the 2017 campaign.
For this writer, Brazilian hard man (yet skillful) Sousa could be the one to hold together a talented midfield while Kiyotake helps to bring out the best in Yoichiro Kakitani and the other attacking elements of this team. I can't see them struggling against relegation, but if they are to challenge for the top, it will be down to Yoon off the field, and Kiyotake and Sousa on it, to take this team up the table.