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Friday, March 6, 2009

J. League also-rans looking to change gear


Staff writer

The following is the first of a two-part J. League preview for the upcoming season. Team-by-team previews of the nine bottom-ranked teams competing in the first division are listed.

News photo
Hard times: Jubilo Iwata and striker Robert Cullen (right) will be hoping to avoid another brush with relegation in the J. League this season. KYODO PHOTO

MONTEDIO YAMAGATA

Last season: second in J2

Montedio has been knocking on the door of J1 for a few years, but things are set to get a lot tougher now that the Tohoku club has achieved its ambition.

For one thing, star striker Yohei Toyoda has joined Kyoto Sanga, leaving former partner Yu Hasegawa with the goalscoring burden in front of a team that relied heavily on the pair last season.

Several other on-loan squad members have also departed, and manager Shinji Kobayashi will need to get his team on the same wavelength as soon as possible if Yamagata is to avoid what could be a fatal bad start.

Experience is at a premium throughout Kobayashi's young team, and signing a few battle-hardened veterans might have held Montedio in better stead for what promises to be a long, hard campaign.

Both Consadole Sapporo and Tokyo Verdy — the two teams automatically promoted in 2007 — went straight back down to J2 last season. The omens do not look good for Montedio either.

SANFRECCE HIROSHIMA

Last season: J2 champion

Sanfrecce is back in the top flight after only a year in J2, but one look at the squad list suggests the club has never been away.

The core of the Sanfrecce side that went down in 2007 while also reaching the Emperor's Cup final has been kept intact, a decision that helped clinch promotion last season with months to spare.

Now Mihailo Petrovic's men must prove they have what it takes to stay in the first division, and there are ample grounds for optimism.

Hisato Sato may not be quite up to international standard, but he remains as sharp as ever as the spearhead of Sanfrecce's attack, and Yosuke Kashiwagi will be better equipped for the top level now that he has more experience under his belt.

Kazuyuki Morisaki will also play an important role in midfield, while Croatian Mihael Mikic could turn out to be a canny buy alongside him.

Ilian Stoyanov will again marshal a tough defense, but survival is most definitely the limit of Sanfrecce's ambition. Another relegation is possible, but Hiroshima looks streetwise enough to make sure it has learned from its mistakes.

JUBILO IWATA

Last season: 16th

Jubilo escaped a first-ever relegation last season only by scraping through a playoff against Vegalta Sendai, and the former champion's brush with disaster came as little surprise.

The Shizuoka club's star has been on the wane for some time now, and few other teams will begin 2009 with as much apprehension.

Reinforcements have been thin on the ground, and it remains to be seen whether youngsters such as 19-year-old Kosuke Yamamoto are ready to shoulder the burden.

It does not help matters that striker Robert Cullen and midfielder Kota Ueda are set to miss the start of the season with injury, but there are some chinks of light amid the gloom.

Ryoichi Maeda and Gilsinho's little-and-large partnership up front carries the threat of goals, while left back Yuichi Komano and goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi are seasoned internationals with plenty of gas left in the tank.

But Jubilo has found it difficult adapting to the end of its golden age. If improvements are not made this year, a much darker chapter in the club's history could begin.

JEF UNITED CHIBA

Last season: 15th

JEF can hardly make a worse start than last season, when a dismal return of two points from 11 games cost manager Josip Kuze his job and dug the club into a hole that took replacement Alex Miller the rest of the year to climb out of.

Miller's squad has changed little from the one he inherited last May, but the Scotsman has instilled a fighting spirit that should go some way toward compensating for his players' limited ability.

The arrival of Masaki Chugo adds a sprinkling of class to the midfield, however, and national team striker Seiichiro Maki has stayed to lead by example from the front.

Defenders Masataka Sakamoto and Eddy Bosnar also proved their worth last season, but there can be no hiding the fact that JEF will find the going tough again this year.

Only rock-bottom Consadole Sapporo conceded more goals last term, and there can be no repeat of the sloppy errors that marked Chiba's play if the club wants to retain its top-flight status.

Ultimately, 15th place was about right for JEF, but that is not to say another struggle is necessarily on the cards. If the team can settle into a rhythm from the start, a midtable finish looks a reasonable target.

KYOTO SANGA

Last season: 14th

Sanga impressed despite being drawn into a relegation dogfight last season, and the arrival of more quality names suggests the club could have a more comfortable time this year.

Kyoto's bold decision to bring in the likes of Atsushi Yanagisawa, Yuto Sato and Hiroki Mizumoto in 2008 paid off in spades, and they have now been joined by Brazilian powerhouse Diego and Beijing Olympic striker Yohei Toyoda.

Diego's bustling presence on the right should complement the lithe trickery of compatriot Paulinho on the opposite flank, while Sato and veteran Sidiclei will again form a neat-and-tidy partnership in the middle.

Toyoda still has to prove himself at this level, but he can have no better mentor alongside him than Yanagisawa. The 31-year-old offered the perfect riposte to those who said his career was finished when he left Kashima Antlers in 2007, hitting 14 goals for his new side and making the J. League team of the season.

Sanga's defense also looks reasonably solid, and although center back Lee Jung Soo is an unknown quantity, manager Hisashi Kato can be satisfied his side is heading in an upward direction.

ALBIREX NIIGATA

Last season: 13th

The calm brought by years of steady upward progress was shattered by an uncomfortable brush with relegation for Albirex last season, and a return to the J. League's middle ranks would probably be a welcome achievement for Jun Suzuki's side.

The club desperately needs a more effective standard-bearer than striker Kisho Yano, who again failed to hit double figures last season, and Suzuki must hope Hideo Oshima can pick up the slack following his move from Yokohama F. Marinos.

His task will not be helped by the departure of Alessandro, but Pedro Junior could be a worthwhile loan acquisition from Omiya Ardija. The goals will need to come from somewhere, though — Albirex was the lowest-scoring club in the division last term.

The defense was hardly watertight either, but Mitsuru Chiyotanda is a reliable performer and there are plenty of other teams with issues to address at the back.

Albirex has led a charmed life thus far in attracting the second-highest attendances in the league. If the club cannot give the fans something to cheer about this season, their backing may not be so enthusiastic in the future.

OMIYA ARDIJA

Last season: 12th

Omiya's excellent start to last season cushioned its subsequent fall enough to stave off relegation, but the slide down the table was proof enough that nothing can be taken for granted in 2009.

Further cause for concern comes with the departure of midfielder Daigo Kobayashi to Norway's Stabaek. The 26-year-old has long been Ardija's talisman and inspiration, but his former teammates will have to quickly banish him from memory if they want to settle into an early rhythm and get points on the board.

That task will be made easier if Slovenian striker Klemen Lavric can continue to make an impression following his midseason arrival last year, and much is also expected of Denis Marques.

Croatian defender Mato Neretljak will bring experience following his move from South Korea, and Omiya's blend of power and pace could cause problems for those who underestimate Chang Woe Ryong's side.

Whether it will be enough to escape the drop remains to be seen. But Ardija has been involved in enough relegation battles to know what is required, and will certainly not be found wanting if it comes down to a scrap.

KASHIWA REYSOL

Last season: 11th

Last season's Emperor's Cup final appearance showed Reysol can match any team on its day, but an 11th-place league finish gives a truer picture of the Chiba club's nature.

No player personifies this inconsistency more than mercurial striker Franca, but while the Brazilian's brain still works several steps ahead of the rest, his 33-year-old legs are beginning to show the strain.

Tadanari Lee is another who delighted and infuriated in equal measures last year, and this could be a make-or-break season for the Beijing Olympic striker.

About the only sure thing about Reysol last term were the performances of goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno, whose outstanding instincts and agility won him a call-up to Takeshi Okada's Japan squad for the World Cup qualifier against Australia last month.

But manager Nobuhiro Ishizaki's departure for Consadole Sapporo raises further question marks over Kashiwa's prospects, and although former assistant Shinichiro Takahashi will bring continuity, the jury is out on the rookie's ability to take the side to a higher level.

Reysol's flirt with relegation last season will have done nothing to inspire the club's supporters, and unless key players can make their mark this year, more of the same may be in store.

VISSEL KOBE

Last season: 10th

Vissel was one of the few sides not involved in a title challenge or relegation battle last season, but such anonymity does not sit well with a club hell-bent on upping its standing.

Kobe rarely enters the transfer market quietly, and so it has been this winter. Star strikers Yoshito Okubo and Leandro have departed for Wolfsburg and Gamba Osaka, respectively, while former national team captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto returns to Japan after two years in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg.

Miyamoto should give a touch of poise to Vissel's back line, but the club has also added steel with the loan acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Alan Bahia. The 26-year-old has pedigree from his time at Atletico Paranaense, as do striker Marcel from Benfica and forgotten man Kazuki Ganaha from Kawasaki Frontale.

The changes are not limited to the playing staff, however, and new manager Caio Junior must quickly get his bearings to forge a cohesive unit after the comings and goings of the offseason.

If he can do so, there is enough talent in the team to make a bigger splash than last year. If he cannot, another humdrum season awaits.

Note: Part II of this season's J.League preview will run in tomorrow's editions.



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