The J-League may no longer be able to attract the stars it did in the nineties, but in terms of excitement and unpredictability ‘Japan’s Premier League’ has never been better.

Last season newly promoted Kashiwa Reysol shocked everyone by claiming their first ever J1 Championship, while giants Urawa narrowly avoided the drop.

Title races that go to the wire and dramatic relegation battles have been commonplace in recent seasons. 2012 is unlikely to be any different.

Kashiwa Reysol

Kashiwa Reysol

Relegated from J1 in 2009, J2 Champions in 2010, J1 Champions in 2011. What a turnaround it has been for the ‘Sun Kings’, but can the fairytale continue? Led by the classy Brazilian pairing of Leandro Domingues and Jorge Wagner, they have enough quality in their first team to mount another challenge. Playing in the Asian Champions League for the first time though, could stretch what is a relatively thin squad.

Weekender fact: Kashiwa Reysol created history last year by becoming the first promoted team to win the top flight. An amazing feat that boosted a city, which was reportedly a ‘hot-spot’ of radiation.

Key Player: Leandro Domingues

One to Watch: Hiroki Sakai

Official site:

Nagoya Grampus

Arsene Wenger said that he would ”love” to see Dragan Stojković “succeed” him as Arsenal manager after the man known as ‘Piksi’ guided Nagoya to their first ever title in 2010, winning it in style. They missed out by a point last season, but with Jungo Fujimoto providing the creative spark in midfield and Josh Kennedy firing the goals up-front, Stojkovic knows they are capable of going one better this time round.

Weekender fact: Probably the most well-known J-league side in England following Gary Lineker’s stint there in the early nineties. The legendary striker managed just 23 appearances in two years at the club.

Key Player: Josh Kennedy

One to Watch: Kensuke Nagai

Official site:

Gamba Osaka

One of the few consistent sides in the league having only finished outside of the top three twice in the past 10 seasons. The loss of Korean forward, Lee Keun-Ho is another blow after Takashi Usami left for Bayern Munich last Summer. In Yasuhito Endo though, they have the best midfielder in the division and if their Brazilian forwards can click, they should once again be up there fighting for the title.

Weekender fact: Gamba’s only title win came on a dramatic day in 2005, when five teams had a chance of claiming the trophy on the final day. They snatched the trophy from rivals Cerezo Osaka in the dying seconds.

Key Player: Yasuhito Endo

One to Watch: Lee Seung-Yeoul

Official site:

Vegalta Sendai

One of the stories of last season was Vegalta Sendai, who despite the earthquake, recorded their highest ever position of fourth and briefly led the table. They boasted the best defensive record in the league, but would have struggled without the goals of Shingo Akamine. He will need more support up front for them to reach the heights of last season. North Korean midfielder Ryang Yong-Gi is the engine in midfield.

Weekender fact: A visit to the Yurtec stadium is always an interesting experience. Chants to the tunes of bands like the Ramones and Kiss are usually performed, while Take Me Home, Country Roads is sung before each game.

Key Player: Shingo Akamine

One to Watch: Yuta Echigo

Official site:

Yokohama F. Marinos

Since last winning the title in 2004, Marinos have under-achieved, settling for mid-table mediocrity. They looked capable of challenging last year, before falling away towards the end. In Shunsuke Nakamura, they have the most recognizable face in the league, while Yuji Nakazawa is also well known after his heroic performances at the 2010 World Cup. Much is expected of young winger Yuji Ono.

Weekender fact: Few players are more accurate with a dead ball than Shunsuke Nakamura and the former Celtic man proved he hasn’t lost it with this little effort.

Key Player: Shunsuke Nakamura

One to Watch: Yuji Ono

Official site:

Kashima Antlers

The most successful side in J-League history, having won the title seven times. That said, they have gone backwards in the past couple of years. World Cup winner and former Kashima player Jorginho is their new coach and he has bought the experienced Juninho in up front. He is also expected to give the younger players like Yuya Osako and Gaku Shibasaki a chance to shine as Kashima look to challenge again.

Kashima have had strong ties with Brazil since Zico played for the club in the early nineties and pretty much of all of their foreign transfers since then have come from Brazil.

Key Player: Takuya Honda

One to Watch: Gaku Shibasaki

Official site:

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

They have finished in the top half of the table in each of the last three seasons, but they might find it more difficult this time round. Coach Mihalio Petrovic has gone and they will miss the goals of Tadanari Lee, who has left for English side Southampton. He formed a fantastic partnership with Hisato Sato during the last campaign and now the goal scoring responsibility will primarily lie on the shoulders of Sato.

Weekender fact: The name Sanfrecce stands for three arrows, which is based on a parable by the legendary Daimyo; Mori Motonari. This parable is also believed to have been the inspiration behind Akira Kurosawa’s legendary movie; ‘Ran’.

Key Player: Hisato Sato

One to Watch: Junya Osaki

Official site:

Jubilo Iwata

Only Kashima Antlers have won more titles than Jubilo, but in recent years the side from Shizuoka have been on an alarming downward spiral. Last year showed some promise however, as they finished in the top ten for the first time since 2007. They will once again be relying on Ryoichi Maeda to provide the lion’s share of the goals after the international striker failed to earn a contract at West Ham.

Weekender fact: Dunga is widely regarded as the club’s most influential ever player. After captaining Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup, he led Jubilo to their first title success.

Key Player: Ryoichi Maeda

One to Watch: Ryohei Yamazaki

Official site:

Vissel Kobe

They have perennially floated between mid-table and the relegation zone and it is hard to see this season being any different. Financial difficulties have plagued the club since the nineties and they filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003. Despite the problems they have only been relegated from the top flight once and bounced back the following season. Masahiko Inoha has arrived after cutting ties with Hajduk Split.

Weekender fact: Seen as the ‘Beckham of Turkish Football’, Ilhan Mansiz arrived at the club in blaze of publicity in 2004. Popular with the ladies off the field, he was hardly seen on it, playing just three games for the side.

Key Player: Yoshito Okubo

One to Watch: Keijiro Ogawa

Official site:

Shimizu S-Pulse

Considering half of the first team was sold off, Afshin Ghotbi did well to guide the Shizuoka based club to a tenth place finish during the last campaign. They showed promise in the second half of the season after a terrible start and the Iranian boss will be hoping they can build on that in 2012. Freddie Ljungberg has gone, but they still have a lot of experience in the squad with Shinji Ono and Naohiro Takahara.

Weekender fact: Former player and coach, Kenta Hasegawa made a few appearances in the popular manga and anime series; ‘Chibi Maruko-Chan’, while two fictional characters from ‘Captain Tsubasa’ signed for S-Pulse.

Key Player: Naohiro Takahara

One to Watch: Toshiyuki Takagi

Official site:

Kawasaki Frontale

Many supporters were surprised with the club’s eleventh place finish in 2011 after getting used to seeing them constantly challenge for the title. The slide started after the 2010 World Cup, when Chong Tese and Eiji Kawashima departed for Europe. Midfielders Junichi Inamoto and Kengo Nakamura remain, but with legendary striker Juninho also gone, it is a very different side to the one that finished second in 2009.

Weekender fact: He may currently be one of the most sought after strikers in the World, but the Hulk (Givanildo Vieira de Souza) wasn’t so highly rated at Frontale. The Lou Ferrigno look-alike only made two appearances for the club and was twice loaned out to J2 sides.

Key Player: Kengo Nakamura

One to Watch: Ryota Oshima

Official site:

Cerezo Osaka

One of the most exciting teams to watch, Cerezo have been a victim of their own success in the past couple of years. The brilliant form of youngsters like Shinji Kagawa, Akihiro Ienaga and Takashi Inui, saw European scouts come flocking and Hiroshi Kiyotake could be the next to go if he continues with the fine form he displayed in the past twelve months. The conveyer belt of young talent at the club shows no sign of abating.

An injury time goal conceded on the last day of the season cost Cerezo the title in 2005, with city rivals Gamba taking advantage of their slip. A year later Cerezo were relegated to J2.

Key Player: Hiroshi Kiyotake

One to Watch: Kenyu Sugimoto

Official site:

Omiya Ardija

A seemingly easy team to predict, the ‘Squirrels’ have finished either 12th or 13th five times in the last six seasons and another campaign of mediocrity seems likely. That said, they did finish above rivals Urawa for the first time in 2011. On top of that, the signings of Yu Hasegawa and Cho Young-Cheol give the fans reason to be slightly optimistic for year ahead. The dizzying heights of 11th may well be in their sights.

Weekender fact: They were threatened with a points deduction in 2010 after they exaggerated their attendance figures. Rather than just counting those with tickets, they also included match officials, team staff and volunteers at the club.

Key Player: Cho Young-Cheol

One to Watch: Keigo Higashi

Official site:

Albirex Niigata

The second best supported team in the league in terms of ticket sales, Albirex have often looked like a side with the potential to challenge, yet always end up settling for a place in the middle tier of the division. They have some good attacking options with Kishi Yano returning from Germany and Shoki Hirai signing from Gamba, but any joy at the new signings has been tempered by the loss of key players Gotoku Sakai and Cho Young-Cheol.

Weekender fact: Albirex Niigata Singapore are a satellite team of the J1 side and are currently top of the S-League. They won their first League Cup last season and were runners-up in the Singapore Cup.

Key Player: Shoki Hirai

One to Watch: Musashi Suzuki

Official site:

Urawa Reds

In terms of support and finances, Urawa are the ‘Manchester United’ of Japan, in terms of results they are more like Blackburn. After winning the their first title in 2006 they were expected to dominate the J-League. Instead, they have declined at an alarming rate and finished just above the relegation zone in 2011. Their loyal fans will be hoping new coach, Mihalio Petrovic can get the best out of what is undoubtedly a talented squad.

Weekender fact: Despite winning the AFC Champions League in 2007, they managed just two points in the last four games that season to throw away the domestic title, losing the final match to the already relegated Yokohama FC. A result they have yet to recover from.

Key Player: Yuki Abe

One to Watch: Genki Haraguchi

Official site:

FC Tokyo

Recovered well from their surprising relegation in 2010 to stroll to the J2 title last year. They went on to become the first J2 champions to lift the Emperor’s Cup, earning them a place in the Asian Champions League. With the players at their disposal, they should never have gone down in the first place. It is a big season for 6”4 striker, Sota Hirayama, who has so far failed to fulfill the potential he showed as a youngster.

Weekender fact: Trying to create a Premier League-like atmosphere, they play British music before the game and their fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. They also had a ‘British Day’, where they served fish and chips with Bass Pale Ale and Brits got in for 500 yen.

Key Player: Sota Hirayama

One to Watch: Takuji Yonemoto

Official site:

Sagan Tosu

A first season in the top flight for the Kyushu based club and anything beyond avoiding the drop will be seen as a bonus.

The momentum of promotion usually helps teams in the early months. It will be in the latter half of the campaign when they are really tested. A relatively small squad with a number of players set to star in Division 1 for the first time. It will be a big challenge, but one the players and fans will relish.

Weekender fact: Princess Tenko reportedly gave the club financial aid in 2005. Kim Jong-Il’s favorite magician is known to be a huge fan of the J-League and has also helped out Venforet Kofu.

Key Player: Yohei Toyoda

One to Watch: Kim Min-Woo

Official site:

Consadole Sapporo

A yo-yo club, who have been relegated three out of the four times they have appeared in J1 and are once again favorites to fall through the trapdoor. They have been busy in the off-season, bringing in a large number of players, including Australian international Jade North and the return of Brazilian striker Thiago Quirino. Like Sagan, the aim is to finish outside of the bottom three, come the end of the season.

Weekender fact: The club shares it’s ground with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team. The Fighters use an artificial turf for their games, while a grass pitch is slid in for all Consadole matches.

Key Player: Issei Takayanagi

One to Watch: Shota Sakai

Official site:

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Text by Matthew Hernon