With the J-League kicking off this Saturday, Weekender decided to pick out the eight players we think could make a big impression over the next nine months.
By Matthew Hernon
Takashi Usami (Gamba Osaka) An obvious choice, Usami was an instrumental figure for Gamba as the Osaka side narrowly beat Urawa to win the championship last year. Despite being on the bench for Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League Final, things didn’t really work out for him in Germany, yet back in the J-League his confidence seems to have returned. An attacker who can create as well as score, he will once again be a key player for Gamba as they look to retain the title.
Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima Antlers) Seen as the heir apparent to Yasuhito Endo in the national team, Shibasaki is a classy midfielder with excellent positional sense and great vision. Rookie of the Year in 2012, he has matured a lot since and is now the player Kashima Antlers coach Toninho Cerezo builds his team around. It won’t be long before clubs in Europe come calling—Kashima fans will be hoping they can keep hold of their prized possession until at least the end of this campaign.
Peter Utaka (Shimizu S-Pulse) The Nigerian striker with seven international caps to his name arrives in Japan with a fairly decent reputation having scored quite a few goals in the Belgian and Danish leagues. He moved to China in 2012 and got off to an explosive start in his first year. The past couple of seasons weren’t quite as successful and now the 31-year-old will be looking to get his career back on track at S-Pulse. After a disastrous 2014 campaign, the Shimizu club need him to be firing on all cylinders.
Yūki Ōtsu (Kashiwa Reysol) Ōtsu went to Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2011 with high expectations, but it just never happened for him there or in Holland for VVV-Venlo. The 24-year-old will now be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Takashi Usami who has made a successful return to the J-League after an indifferent time in Europe. He has certainly got the talent; he showed that during his first spell at Kashiwa and at the 2012 Olympics when he scored three times for his country.
Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale) The captain of Japan’s U23 side, Oshima is a gifted midfielder boasting great energy and a terrific ability to open teams up with his range of passing. He is likely to eventually surpass the number of international caps won by his captain at Frontale: Kengo Nakamura, who has never really established himself as a first team regular for his country. The pair have formed a formidable partnership in the midfield for the Kawasaki club. If they can both remain fit a title challenge is a possibility.
Musashi Suzuki (Albirex Niigata) A powerful forward with lots of pace, Suzuki showed glimpses of his undoubted talent last season, but Albirex will be looking for even more from him during this campaign. With a Jamaican father and a Japanese mother he naturally stands out whenever he plays for Japan’s youth teams and has attracted interest from Europe. He trained with Eintracht Frankfurt in January; however, you feel he needs at least one big year in the J-League before he’s ready for a move like that.
Yoshinori Muto (FC Tokyo) The 2014 campaign was Muto’s first as a professional and the Keio University student made quite an impression. He scored 13 goals from an attacking midfield position and also hit the back of the net in his second game for the national team against Venezuela in September. He was an unknown quantity at the start of last year and consequently caught some defenses by surprise. He won’t have that luxury this time round. The 22-year-old will be determined to show the doubters that he’s no flash in the pan.
Caio (Kashima Antlers) Another player who flourished in his debut season in 2014 was Caio—who surprisingly beat Muto to the Rookie of the Year Award. A former São Paulo FC youth player, he was invited to Japan by Chiba International High School when he was 17 and was then scouted by Kashima while playing in the High School Championships. Asked by Tiago Bontempo in JSoccer Magazine whether he would be willing to represent Japan at international level, he replied, “I would accept it, without any doubt.”
J2 There are also a number of interesting players to watch in J2. Former European Golden Shoe and Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan remains at Cerezo Osaka despite having been very critical of the side at the end of last year. Journeyman striker, Jay Bothroyd—with one England cap to his name—has signed for Jubilo Iwata. Junichi Inamoto has been reunited with former international teammate, Shinji Ono at Consadole Sapporo. 48-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura, the world’s oldest footballer, has extended his contract with Yokohama FC. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum 17-year-old winger Masaya Okugawa is seen as a real hot prospect for Kyoto Sanga FC and has reportedly attracted interest from a number of European clubs.