With the J-League set to kick-off this Friday, TW takes a look at some of the transfers that caught our eye during the close season. We begin with a legendary Spanish striker who recently became Vissel Kobe’s third World Cup-winning signing in as many years.

David Villa (Vissel Kobe)

The most high-profile move this winter was undoubtedly Vissel Kobe’s capture of David Villa who joins former Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta and German forward Lukas Podolski at the Hyogo Prefecture-based club.

The man nicknamed El Guaje (The Kid) is Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer with an incredible 59 goals in 97 games. He hit the net five times at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) lifted the trophy for the first time in their history and was an integral part of the side when they won the European Championships two years prior to that.

Villa’s finest moment at club level came in 2011 when he scored in the Champions League final for Barcelona in their 3-1 victory over Man Utd at Wembley Stadium. A three-time La Liga winner, his goalscoring record at every team he’s been at is hugely impressive, particularly at Valencia and New York City where he managed well over a goal a game. Kobe fans will be hoping for more of the same this season.

Image: Shutterstock

Hotaru Yamaguchi (Vissel Kobe)

It’s not a transfer that will create anything like the same kind of buzz as David Villa, but the signing of Hotaru Yamaguchi could prove to be just as valuable for a Kobe side that conceded far too many goals in 2018.

A defensive midfielder with good positional sense, Yamaguchi was a fan-favorite at previous club Cerezo Osaka where he came through the youth system to become captain. The 28-year-old has won 45 caps for his country and played at two World Cups, though was left out of the recent Asian Cup squad as manager Hajime Moriyasu decided to go with a younger group of players.

A good season for Kobe and the combative midfielder could force his way back into the national side. He will provide the steel in the middle of the park for Vissel while Andres Iniesta works his magic, creating chances for Podolski and Villa. Juan Manuel Lillo’s men are expected to challenge for the title this season following a disappointing campaign in 2018 which saw them finish just 10th.

Isaac Cuenca (Sagan Tosu)

On October 19, 2011 David Villa was taken off in a Champions League tie against FC Viktoria Plzen to be replaced by an exciting young debutant named Isaac Cuenca. Just 20 at the time, the young winger was seen as a player with the potential to make a real name for himself at Barcelona.

Unfortunately, Cuenca’s career never really took off at Camp Nou. He scored just two goals in 16 appearances for the club before being sold to Deportivo La Coruna in 2014. Since then he has had shown his undoubted promise here and there but never really settled at a club long enough to make a significant impact.

Sagan Tosu fans will be looking forward to seeing how the 27-year-old wide man links up with the club’s marquee player Fernando Torres who signed from Atletico Madrid last summer. The former Liverpool, Chelsea and AC Milan forward scored a late winner for the Saga Prefecture side as they narrowly avoided relegation to J2 in 2018. Lluis Carreras, a teammate of Torres during his first spell at Atletico Madrid, is the team’s new head coach.

Kenyu Sugimoto (Urawa Red Diamonds)

After finishing second in the scoring charts behind Kawasaki Frontale’s Yu Kobayashi in 2017, Kenyu Sugimoto endured a disappointing campaign last year, hitting the net just five times in 30 appearances for mid-table side Cerezo Osaka.

Feeling it was time for a new challenge, the 26-year-old forward decided to join two-time Asian Champions League winners Urawa Reds this winter. The Saitama-based club are the best-supported side in the division and are always among the favorites for the title despite having not won it since 2006. If they are to challenge this season, Sugimoto will need to rediscover the form that made him one of the most sought-after players in the league two years ago.

The former Kawasaki Frontale frontman has played eight times for his country and was a member of the Japan squad that reached the last 16 at the 2018 World Cup, though didn’t feature in any of the games. He wasn’t selected for the recent Asian Cup as Shimizu S-Pulse striker Koya Kitagawa and Newcastle’s Yoshinori Muto were the preferred back-up options to leading marksman Yuya Osako.


Leandro Damiao (Kawasaki Frontale)

Aiming to win a third successive J-League title, Kawasaki Frontale have added to what is already a strong looking forward-line with the loan signing of Brazilian international striker Leandro Damiao from Vila Belmiro-based club Santos FC.

The skilful 29-year-old has won 17 caps for the Selecao and up until this year had only played for Brazilian teams. There were offers from abroad including Tottenham Hotspurs and Napoli with the latter’s chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis stating that manager Rafa Benitez wanted Damiao ahead of current Chelsea striker Gonzalo Higuain in 2013.

Top scorer at the 2012 London Olympics, Damiao should thrive in attacking side like Frontale. His partnership up front with captain Yu Kobayashi could prove deadly. With creative midfielders such as Akihiro Ienaga, Kengo Nakamura, and Ryota Oshima in the team, Kawasaki are once again likely to be the team to watch in the J-League this season.