A new season of the MEIJI YASUDA J1 League begins on February 21. Can Yokohama F.Marinos defend their title? Will the two newly promoted clubs thrive in J1? Young talents are also under the spotlight ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The opening match is a clash between Shonan Bellmare and Urawa Reds. Shonan lost several regulars this winter, but they shook off some of the concerns by beating Oita Trinita in the Levain Cup last week. The new 4-4-2 system and the performance of new signing Leonardo will be talking points for Urawa.
Defending champions Yokohama F.Marinos meet Gamba Osaka at home. They lost to Vissel Kobe at penalties in the FUJI XEROX SUPER CUP, but defeated South Korean and Australian champions in the AFC Champions League. They are eager to show their entertaining football on the domestic stage as well. Gamba also have great firepower in Takashi Usami and Ademilson. New signing Gen Shoji could make an appearance.
Last year’s runners-up FC Tokyo face Shimizu S-Pulse away. Adding Leandro and Adailton to the squad, they already had a good start in the ACL. The performance of the Brazilian trio that also includes Diego Oliveira will be a key. Shimizu are trying to develop their new style of possession football under new manager Peter Cklamovski.
Kashiwa Reysol, after comfortably winning J2 last year, have their first game back in J1 at home against Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. In addition to the powerful duo formed by Olunga and Cristiano, they reinforced each position with reliable players. Their goal is to repeat the 2011 season when they won the league immediately following a return in the top division. Sapporo did not see a major change to their squad and will continue on their way in the third year under Mihailo Petrovic.
Yokohama FC return to J1 for the first time in 13 years and open away at Vissel Kobe. They feature a mix of young talents as well as experienced players. With organized defense and aggressive attack, they challenge one of the most talented squad in the league. Meanwhile, Kobe are already on fire this season, winning all three official matches so far. New signing Douglas is in top form, and last season’s key players including Iniesta displayed already consistent performances. To achieve the goal of winning the league for the first time, they need a great start in their J1 campaign.
This is Vegalta Sendai’s first season under new manager Takashi Kiyama. Due to a number of injured players, including Isaac Cuenca, expectations fall on attackers such as Shuhei Akasaki. The opponents Nagoya reinforced the squad by adding Hiroyuki Abe and Sho Inagaki among others. Although Jô will miss the opening match due to injury, last year’s leading scorer for Grampus, Naoki Maeda, has what it takes to make a difference.
Kawasaki Frontale begin their journey to win back the title at home against Sagan Tosu. New attacking trio showed their strength in the Levain Cup and will be dangerous in the opening match as well. Tosu aspire to play a more attacking style of football this season, and have a new weapon in new signing Tomoya Koyamatsu’s dribbling.
Cerezo Osaka meet Oita Trinita at home. The Osakans had the best defense in the league last season, and added Tatsuhiro Sakamoto and Yuta Toyokawa to improve their offensive quality. They want to take advantage of the momentum after beating Matsumoto Yamaga 4-1 in the Levain Cup. Oita reinforced their attacking force by signing Kei Chinen and Daiki Watari. Since both teams boast solid defensive units, it could be a game in which a single goal makes the difference.
Finally, Sanfrecce Hioshima host Kashima Antlers. Since the home side did not make any big signing this winter, youngsters such as Keisuke Osako and Tsukasa Morishima, who had a breakthrough last year, are expected to play even more important roles. Toshihiro Aoyama is in a fine form and ready for the opening match. Meanwhile, it will be a year of change for Kashima under new manager Zago. They reinforced the squad by adding many new players such as Ryuji Izumi and Tatsuki Naga. However, defeats in the ACL playoff and last week’s Levain Cup might suggest that it will take some time for their new style to start working as hoped.