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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Antlers favored for third straight J. League crown

Staff writer

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

News photo
Top of the pile: Kashima Antlers' Yuzo Tashiro (right) will be aiming to help his team to a third straight J. League title when the season begins on Saturday. KYODO PHOTO


Last season: champion

If there was doubt surrounding Kashima's credentials as champions this time last year, there can be none now.

Oswaldo Oliveira's men were worthy winners in 2008 after pinching the title from Urawa Reds the season before, and the Ibaraki club must start as favorite to take home the silverware for a third straight year.

Not much has changed for the champions, but then Oliveira's revolution has been a quiet one.

Masahiko Inoha and Shinzo Koroki slipped seamlessly into the starting lineup last season, and should continue to grow as the manager gives them more responsibility. Young striker Yuya Osako may be the next to benefit.

Continuity has been the key to Antlers' success, and the club acted wisely during the offseason to retain the services of two men crucial to maintaining that status quo.

Many teams in Europe would have liked to lure Atsuto Uchida to a higher-profile stage, but the brilliant young right back has stayed to give Kashima solidity and a rich seam of attacking creativity.

Just as importantly, Oliveira has pledged his future to the club after rumors of a move back to the Middle East. The Brazilian has an uncanny knack of bringing the best out of his players, and if he can work his magic again this year, Antlers' domination looks set to continue.


Last season: second

Frontale never seemed to realize just how good a chance it had to win the title last year until it was too late.

Kawasaki finished the season with an almighty flourish, racking up 10 goals in its final three games only to see Kashima Antlers keep their noses in front to win the title, but the club has all the tools needed to go one better this time.

North Korean international Chong Tese is developing into one of the best strikers in Asia, and is ably assisted by veteran Brazilian Juninho and his two young countrymen, Vitor Junior and Renatinho. Kengo Nakamura will again pull the strings in midfield, while Hiroyuki Taniguchi offers thrust and stability alongside him.

Defense was Frontale's Achilles heel last season, conceding 12 more goals than Antlers, but a solid core of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and center-backs Shuhei Terada and Yusuke Igawa will be keen to show what they can really do.

The offseason break will not have been welcomed by a side that really hit its stride in November, and Frontale cannot afford the periods of inconsistency that have crippled its chances in the past.

But if Takashi Sekizuka's men can hit the ground running, a first league championship is a very real possibility.


Last season: third

Dragan Stojkovic was hailed as a returning hero when he took up the reins at Grampus last year, but few could have predicted how well he would do in his first season as a manager.

The Serbian transformed a squad that had underachieved for years into a tactically disciplined unit that led the league for much of the season and took its title challenge into the final day.

Stojkovic coaxed the best out of striker Keiji Tamada, midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa and left back Shohei Abe, and a place in the Asian Champions League was just reward for their efforts.

The manager now begins phase two of his project, and has laid the groundwork for a faster, more dynamic game by replacing tall target man Frode Johnsen with the more mobile Davi.

The Brazilian proved his worth in hitting 16 goals for Consadole Sapporo last season, and his speed in tandem with Tamada should prove a handful for opposing defenders.

Johnsen could yet be missed, however, and Stojkovic will have to work hard to draw even more out of a squad that looks just short of the quality needed to go that extra mile.

Expect further progress, but a serious title bid looks out of the reckoning for the time being.


Last season: fourth

Manager Pericles Chamusca will be eager to prove that last season's title challenge and Nabisco Cup win were no flukes, and the Brazilian has plenty to suggest he could be right.

Last season's revelation, Mu Kanazaki, has remained at the Kyushu club despite interest from more glamorous suitors, and Masato Morishige should also continue his impressive progress at the heart of the league's most miserly defense.

Midfield terminators Roberto and Edmilson should also pick up from where they left off, and there can be no better central pairing anywhere in the J. League than the two veteran Brazilians.

Akihiro Ienaga will feel like a new signing after missing almost all of last season through injury, but a club total of 33 goals — the second-lowest in the league — will have to be improved if Trinita is to be taken seriously.

The team's limitations were exposed when things really got down to the nitty-gritty last season, and Chamusca may need to add more strings to his tactical bow to stop rivals from finding an answer to his ultra-defensive approach.

Oita will certainly be difficult to beat, but moving up to a higher level might take a little more imagination.


Last season: fifth

S-Pulse certainly finished 2008 strongly enough, charging up the table to eventually claim fifth place, but a poor start to the season meant a title challenge was never in the cards.

That can in part be explained by the hole left by influential striker Cho Jae Jin following his exit in 2007, and manager Kenta Hasegawa seems to have taken that on board as he prepares for the new season.

Target man Frode Johnsen has arrived from Nagoya Grampus to plug the gap, and the club has further reinforced its forward line with Yuichiro Nagai from Urawa Reds.

Add Akihiro Hyodo, Takuma Edamura and national team attacker Shinji Okazaki to the mix, and S-Pulse begins the new season with one of the most potent strike forces in the league.

That has, however, come at the cost of the overall balance of the team, and the loss of defender Kazumichi Takagi to Gamba Osaka will be keenly felt.

That said, the positives outweigh the negatives, and there is no reason why S-Pulse should not be able to make a decent fist of challenging for its first league title.


Last season: sixth

FC Tokyo's title challenge last season came as a welcome surprise for long-suffering fans of the capital club, and although a repeat this year might be a tall order, there are optimistic signs for the future nonetheless.

Hiroshi Jofuku's side looks solid throughout — if not exactly awe-inspiring — and several key players have yet to reach their full potential.

Left back Yuto Nagatomo made his national team debut last season and looks more and more convincing with every game he plays. Yasuyuki Konno's international career might be stuck in a rut, but his club performances have not dropped below their usual high standards.

More consistency can be expected of Yohei Kajiyama and Naotake Hanyu, however, and the return of Brazilian enforcer Bruno Quadros in central midfield should provide the stability to allow them to make better use of the ball.

Young Hokuto Nakamura looks like an excellent buy from Avispa Fukuoka, but more pieces are still needed if Tokyo wants to build on last season's success.

If the club can pull off another top-six finish, Jofuku can consider it a job well done.


Last season: seventh

Reds had a disastrous time last year as the country's most privileged club imploded yet again, failing to win a single trophy and finishing in a mortifying seventh place.

Managers Holger Osieck and Gert Engels both paid the price for such failure, and it is left to new boss Volker Finke to give direction to a team that has seriously lost its way.

Naohiro Takahara, Keita Suzuki, Edmilson and Robson Ponte will be among those seeking to restore their reputations, and Finke is likely to give more playing time to young winger Tsukasa Umesaki in a bid to add zip to a side that played stodgy, predictable soccer for much of last year.

But no club employing such an abundance of talent can go into a new season without title ambitions.

Marcus Tulio Tanaka was again outstanding last year, and Hajime Hosogai consolidated his promise in the heart of midfield.

The squad will also be kept on its toes by several members of the Reds side that destroyed Nagoya Grampus 9-1 in the youth cup final, and Naoki Yamada and Genki Haraguchi could make their mark before the year is out.

If Finke can channel the wounded pride of his key players and harness the potential of the youngsters coming through, Urawa may well find itself back on top at the end of the season.


Last season: eighth

Gamba's international success could not paper over the cracks that led to an eighth-place finish last season, but the club has pulled out all the stops to remedy its weaknesses and position itself firmly among the title favorites.

The arrival of strikers Cho Jae Jin and Leandro more than fills the hole left by Bare's midseason move to the Middle East, and the pair will give manager Akira Nishino a wealth of attacking options with Lucas, Ryuji Bando and Masato Yamazaki all still on the payroll.

Competition from Kazumichi Takagi and Park Dong Hyuk means Satoshi Yamaguchi and Sota Nakazawa will have to shape up if they want to keep their places in central defense, and it is this strength in depth that gives Nishino a squad unlike any he has presided over in the past.

The manager now has quality running throughout his bench as well as his starting lineup, and the damage that last year's grueling campaign did to his players is far less likely to be repeated.

The goalkeeping department is one area where Gamba still looks below par, but if the rest of the team can live up to its potential, a first league title since 2005 is there for the taking.


Last season: ninth

The euphoria of beating Urawa Reds 6-1 at Saitama Stadium on the final day should not disguise the fact that Marinos looked absolutely rudderless for much of last season.

Yokohama flopped in grand style after a promising start to the campaign, and the strategy for 2009 paints a picture of a desperate club fast running out of ideas.

No significant new names have been brought in, and fans must shudder to think what would have happened had defender Yuji Nakazawa left the club in the offseason.

Marinos seem to be simply counting the days until Shunsuke Nakamura's contract at Celtic expires, but if — and it is still an "if" — Nakamura signs, he may not like what he finds.

In Yokohama's favor, the squad has the potential to do better. Nakazawa, Naoki Matsuda and Yuzo Kurihara are as good a back line as any in the J. League, while Kenta Kano emerged as a real talent last season.

But Marinos really cannot expect to make a serious challenge for the league given the state they are currently in. If Nakamura does arrive, the club may be able to make something of the season. If he does not, a repeat of last year — or worse — looms.

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