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Saturday, March 13, 2004

Usual suspects set to do battle for J. League honors


By GUS FIELDING
Kyodo News

Turkish World Cup star Ilhan Mansiz lining up for big-spending Vissel Kobe. Japan international Alessandro Santos in an Urawa Reds shirt. Veteran defender Yutaka Akita battling it out at the back for Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Apart from some interesting changes in team personnel, the top flight has a different look this year with almost half of the teams in the J. League first division kicking off the new season this weekend under new managers.

But it is the usual suspects -- Jubilo Iwata, Kashima Antlers and defending champion Yokohama F. Marinos -- that look the strong favorites for league honors in 2004.

In the most tightly fought title race in the history of the J. League, Yokohama smashed Iwata and the Antlers' seven-year duopoly of the title in dramatic fashion by beating Iwata to clinch a two-stage double last year.

Thanks to a memorable last-gasp winner from Japan striker Tatsuhiko Kubo, Yokohama became the first team other than Iwata or Kashima to win the league championship since 1995, the year it won its only previous title.

Not only was victory for Takeshi Okada's men refreshing, it also gave hope to a number of other teams determined to have their day in the sun.

Nabisco Cup holder Urawa looks capable of a serious title challenge in its first season under German World Cup winner Guido Buchwald, while Nagoya has been busy in the transfer market and could make a strong run for its first title.

Yokohama and Urawa invested wisely during the winter break and both teams will be showcasing their new signings when they meet Saturday at International Stadium Yokohama in the pick of the opening-day matches.

Yokohama kicks off the season on the back of a disappointing runnerup finish at the East Asian Champions Cup in Shanghai last month and a 4-2 penalty shootout defeat to Iwata in the season's curtain raiser in the Xerox Super Cup last week.

But Okada, who signed South Korea star Ahn Jung Hwan to partner Kubo up front in the offseason and versatile defender Eisuke Nakanishi, has little reason to panic.

"We've had a load of preseason games against foreign teams but I think I was really only able to see exactly where we are at in the Xerox game," said Okada, whose side sits atop Group G in the Asian Champions League after an under-strength team won two games last month.

"We probably only played to about 70 percent of our potential in that match. The first few games of the season will be tough and we need to be patient in the first stage. If we are, it shouldn't be too long before we can put ourselves in contention," he added.

Iwata, boosted by the return of midfielder Toshiya Fujita from a loan spell cut short at Dutch club Utrecht, has looked sharp in preseason under new boss Takashi Kuwahara and also leads its group in the Champions League.

Brazilian striker Rodrigo Gral, who more than compensated for the loss of Naohiro Takahara last year to Bundesliga club Hamburg SV with 21 goals in 29 league matches, has been on form and will continue to be a menace to many sides.

Kuwahara has acknowledged he is under pressure to deliver the goods after taking over from Masaaki Yanagishita, who stepped down to take the helm at second-division Consadole Sapporo, and predicted a tough season ahead for the 2002 champion.

"There are a lot of strong teams in this division and it will be another tight season but I'm confident we can do well," said Kuwahara.

Four-time champion Kashima, Urawa and Nagoya (which will be eager to shed its perennial underachiever tag once and for all) are all likely to make strong showings this year.

Kashima came within a whisker of snatching the second-stage title but eventually finished last year without a domestic trophy of any kind for the first time in four seasons.

Injuries to key players like Koji Nakata, who is not expected to return to full fitness until the summer, and the departure of Japan striker Atsushi Yanagisawa to Serie A side Sampdoria did little to help its cause.

Toninho Cerezo has signed former Brazil striker Fabio Junior to try and give his side more of a cutting edge in attack while bringing into defense Toru Araiba from Gamba Osaka.

Urawa fans will be hungry for more success after Brazilian striker and 2003 J. League Player of the Year Emerson led it to a 4-0 victory over Kashima in the Nabisco Cup final last season.

With former Kyoto Purple Sanga manager and countryman Gert Engels as his assistant, Buchwald, who played for Urawa for three and a half seasons from 1994, will be making his managerial debut but has warned fans of Japan's most passionately supported club not to expect miracles overnight.

"It's going to be a very exciting season for me. I have very good quality players and I hope that we can finish in the top five, because for the Reds it's always very important to move step-by-step toward the title," said Buchwald.

Santos is Urawa's major preseason signing, the winger joining from Shimizu S-Pulse in January, while the Reds also acquired another Brazilian-born player, defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, who has been in outstanding form for Japan's Under-23s.

Buchwald, however, could be without a host of regulars during the first stage, including striker Tatsuya Tanaka and midfielder Keita Suzuki, who are involved in Japan's final round of Athens Olympic Asian qualifiers on the weekend and could be absent due to build-up matches if Japan, as expected, makes it to Greece.

In a bid to bring a first league title to Mizuho Stadium, Nagoya has strengthened its squad after a mid-table finish last season with the arrival of former Japan stopper Akita from Kashima and 2003 World Youth Championship defender Makoto Kakuda from Kyoto.

Teruo Iwamoto brings experience into midfield while Nelsinho's men should have few worries up front with 2003 J. League top scorer Ueslei continuing to spearhead the attack alongside fellow Brazilian Marques.

Elsewhere, Kobe is unlikely to mount a serious bid for silverware this season, though if advance ticket sales are anything to go by, its bank balance should look fairly healthy at the end of it.

Pin-up Ilhan signed for a J. League record fee of $4.5 million last month and has already started to pay back his new club without having even made his debut.

Such is the popularity of the player in Japan, particularly among young female fans, that Kobe's opener against JEF United Ichihara at the 34,000-capacity Kobe Wing Stadium on Saturday has already sold out.

The acquisition of Ilhan, who scored the golden goal that put Turkey into the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, is a major coup for Kobe, which will be managed this season by Czech Ivan Hasek.

The unfashionable club received a welcome cash injection after being taken over by Crimson Group, operators of "Rakuten Ichiba" Japan's biggest Internet shopping mall.

FC Tokyo boasts a wealth of young talent but will do well to finish any higher than its club-best fourth in the overall standings last season, as will local rival Tokyo Verdy, which made a big improvement under Osvaldo Ardiles last year in finishing eighth in the table.

Meanwhile, Ichihara is likely to miss South Korea striker Choi Yong Soo, who played a pivotal role in taking the Chiba-based club to third last season with 17 goals before moving to relegated Kyoto in December.

Ivica Osim has taken Brazilian striker Marquinhos on loan from Verdy, but it remains to be seen whether he can match Choi's feat, having scored just eight times with Yokohama last season.

Like Urawa, newly promoted Albirex Niigata boasts a massive fan base but could be in for a testing time in its first season in J-1.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, back in the first division after a season in the wilderness of J-2, could find itself in a relegation battle with Oita Trinita and Kashiwa Reysol.



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