The J-League returns this weekend and it promises to be another season of thrills, spills and unpredictability. Here’s a look at five things to look out for in the coming campaign.
By Matthew Hernon
Forlan and Kakitani: A Potentially Explosive Partnership
Unquestionably the most high-profile J-League signing this century, Diego Forlan arrives in Japan with a massive reputation and huge expectations. The last player not named Ronaldo or Messi to win the European Golden Shoe, an award he has won twice; he also received the Golden Ball as the best player of the 2010 World Cup. At 34 he is not quite the player he was back then, though as he showed with his brace for Uruguay against Japan last autumn and this preseason stunner, he remains a deadly finisher.
In Cerezo he has joined arguably the most impressive attacking side in the league. They boast a number of exciting youngsters such as 2013 Rookie of the Year Takumi Minamino, as well as Japanese internationals Hotaru Yamaguchi, Takahiro Ogihara and Yoichiro Kakitani. It is Forlan’s partnership with the latter that will most intrigue the fans.
Shunsuke Nakamura aside, Kakitani was the standout player in the top flight last season, scoring 21 goals. The 24yr old, who has been linked to a number of European clubs such as Fiorentina and Arsenal, is likely to play in the hole with former Man Utd, Villarreal and Atletico Madrid man Forlan leading the line. If they hit it off, it could become the most explosive partnership the J-League has seen in a very long time.
The most popular player in the league? The other foreign signing to create a buzz during preseason was Irfan Bachdim’s move to Ventforet Kofu. Never heard of him? Hardly surprising, he is not exactly a household name in world football. He is, however, incredibly popular in his native Indonesia, particularly amongst women. The winger, who has appeared in a number of commercials for the likes of Nike, Pocari Sweat and Suzuki, has an incredible 4.2million followers on twitter, that is around 200,000 more than Diego Forlan.
The move should prove beneficial from a commercial perspective as the J-League has just signed a contract with four terrestrial TV stations in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. Also Kofu are known to be keen to foster business, cultural and educational exchanges with the world’s fourth most populous country.
While some have argued that Bachdim is just a marketing tool, the player himself is determined to prove them wrong. “I want to play as many games as possible and improve as a player here,” he told Weekender. “I’m really looking forward to playing against stars like (Diego) Forlan, (Shunsuke) Nakamura and (Calvin) Jong-a-Pin. The training is really different from what I was used to before. That said I believe there are many more players in Indonesia who could play in Japan.”
Hiroshima aiming for three in-a-row
If Sanfrecce Hiroshima need any extra motivation to retain their title then perhaps they can call on mayor Kazumi Matsui to give another motivational speech. Whilst he may have only been speaking in jest last year when he said he hoped they would lose because a second title might cost the city a new stadium, his words seemed to spur the team on as they edged Yokohama F. Marinos in a thrilling finale to claim championship number two. So can they now make it three on the bounce?
Their display in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup last weekend would suggest they can. They looked very impressive as they swept aside last year’s runners-up Yokohama F. Marinos with relative ease winning 2-0 in the curtain-raiser for the new season. 19yr old Gakuto Nostuda, who scored one and made another, looks like he could be a key performer for the side in 2014 after spending the majority of the last campaign coming on from the bench. Sanfrecce’s biggest strength, however, lies not in any individual talent, but rather in their collective spirit.
They don’t have as many high-profile players as their rivals and as a result tend to fly under the radar, which they use to their advantage. In 2013 much of the press attention focused on Yokohama F. Marinos and Urawa Reds, yet when it came to the crunch it was the team from Hiroshima that came through. Their experience and ability to win when it really matters should stand them in good stead for the coming campaign.
Out to stop them: Who can wrestle the title away from Sanfrecce?
Retaining their title is not going to be easy. In the J-League title contenders could come from anywhere with the championship more often that not going down to the wire and that’s what makes the division so enthralling. Last year five points separated the top six and there is every chance this year will be just as tight.
Cerezo Osaka start as favourites following the signings of Diego Forlan and Serbian international Gojko Kacar, though with key personnel such as Yoichiro Kakitani expected to leave in the summer they will have to hit the ground running. Urawa have the strongest squad in the league, yet that has counted for little in recent times with them constantly flattering to deceive, could this be the year they finally play to their potential? Led by the brilliant Shunsuke Nakamura, Yokohama F. Marinos will be looking to make up for last year`s disappointment when they effectively threw the title away, Jungo Fujimoto is a useful addition, but an aging defence and lack of firepower up-front could be their undoing.
Kanagawa Rivals Kawasaki Frontale are a potential dark-horse if veteran Yoshito Okubo maintains his form from last year, while 2011 champions Kashiwa Reysol should fare better than last season’s tenth place. Kashima Antlers and Albirex Niigata are two young, vibrant sides to watch who are both capable of challenging and even a promoted side like Gamba Osaka can’t be ruled out.
Players battling for those last seats to Brazil
It’s World Cup year so we can expect to see that extra drive and determination from certain players in the J-League as they look to impress Alberto Zaccheroni and make a late bid for Brazil. Asked whether they might be any surprises for the squad in June, the Italian manager replied that there was “every possibility,” and that there were as many as “63 candidates for the national team.” For a coach that has been reluctant to try new players during his four year reign it was a surprising statement that will give those on the fringes and even uncapped players hope that their dream of appearing in Brazil is still alive.
Whilst 2013 Player of the Year Shunsuke Nakamura has ruled himself out, Marinos teammate Manabu Saito knows that a good start to this campaign will put him in with a great chance of making the final 23. Another Yokohama player who many Samurai Blue fans would love to see back in the squad is Yuji Nakazawa. Neither he nor Nagoya Grampus’ Marcus Tulio Tanaka, his partner for the 2010 World Cup, have appeared for the national team in the past four years, yet you feel that having at least one of them in the side would provide some leadership to a defence leaking goals at an alarming rate.
Barring injuries, the goalkeepers, full-backs and midfielders are unlikely to change too much, though up-front things aren’t so clear. Cerezo Osaka’s Yoichiro Kakitani and TSV 1860 München’s Yuya Osako would appear to be the preferred options, but there may be an extra space for another striker. Veterans Hisato Sato (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale) are two of the most prolific scorers in the league, but for some reason Zaccheroni doesn’t seem to rate them so either Urawa Reds’ Genki Haraguchi or Kashiwa Reysol’s Masato Kudo would appear more likely to get the nod. In World Cup squads there tends to be one or two surprises, could an uncapped player like Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima Antlers) or Takumi Minamino (Cerezo Osaka) make a late bid to get one of those final seats on the plane?