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Friday, March 5, 2010

J. League's lesser lights aim to survive

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 lowest-ranked teams competing in the first division are listed.

News photo
Return man: Jubilo Iwata's Lee Keun Ho (right) should be a key contributor this season. KYODO PHOTO

YOKOHAMA F. MARINOS Last season: 10th

After years of anonymity, the buzz generated by Shunsuke Nakamura's arrival makes it easy to understand why Marinos were so desperate to sign him. But now that the prodigal son has returned, how much of a difference can he be expected to make on the pitch?

Nakamura will certainly add a much-needed dollop of creativity to a team overloaded with defensive midfielders, and striker Kazuma Watanabe should feast on the improved service after hitting 13 goals in his debut season.

Koji Yamase might also benefit with someone to share the midfield burden, and new Argentine striker Pablo Bastianini — once of Yeovil Town in England's third tier — could be a joker in the pack.

But one look at Marinos' recent campaigns should be enough to nip dreams of a return to the glory days in the bud. Yokohama has played lumpen, uninspired soccer for several years now, and the lack of internationals on the club's books tells its own story.

Marinos might well have gone down last year had Watanabe not emerged as a savior, and the arrival of a 31-year-old who failed to cut it in Spain is hardly likely to transform Marinos into contenders overnight.


Last season: 11th

Jubilo looked headed for real trouble after starting last season with two heavy defeats, but the former champion turned things around with such aplomb that relegation was never an issue moving into the final straight.

That was due in no small measure to South Korean striker Lee Keun Ho, who ripped through the J. League like a hurricane after arriving early in the season, then left for a bizarre non-transfer to Paris St. Germain before coming back in the summer.

One man happy to see him return was Ryoichi Maeda, whose prolific partnership with the Korean allowed him to become the league's first Japanese top scorer since 2002 with 20 goals. That was still not enough to convince national team manager Takeshi Okada of Maeda's talents, however, and the 28-year-old will have an extra point to prove with places in Japan's World Cup squad still up for grabs.

But if Jubilo has no trouble scoring goals, a league-worst 60 conceded shows exactly where the team's problem lies. If new South Korean defensive additions Park Joo Ho and Lee Gang Jin can come anywhere near matching their striking countryman's impact, there is no reason why Jubilo's revival should not extend into the top half of the table.


Last season: 12th

Sanga could have expected better than last season's 12th-place finish, so it is little surprise that they were one of the busiest operators in the winter transfer market. Whether the squad is stronger as a result, however, looks dubious.

More players have come in than gone out, but the list of departures contains some heavy hitters.

South Korean center-back Lee Jung Soo has left for champions Kashima Antlers after one productive season, although he may not be so badly missed if countryman Kwak Tae Hwi can fill his boots.

More keenly felt will be the loss of veteran Sidiclei, who has been released, and midfield partner Yuto Sato, who has returned to JEF United Chiba.

Incoming Brazilians Dutra and Thiego are unknown quantities, and manager Hisashi Kato will have his work cut out building a coherent team after all the comings and goings.

Fortunately some good players remain, including steady defender Hiroki Mizumoto, Brazilian attacker Diego and striker Atsushi Yanagisawa. A heavy responsibility will rest on their shoulders, however, especially after the dismal late form that almost sucked the team down last season.


Last season: 13th

Omiya should have had first-division survival in the bag long before the penultimate weekend last season, but nerves combined with Kashiwa Reysol's last stand to ensure a sixth straight season in the top flight did not come easy.

Ardija certainly looked to have the quality to wrap things up earlier. The richly deserved 3-1 home win over eventual champion Kashima Antlers will live long in the memory, but it was not the only time Chang Woe Ryong's side showed an aptitude for attractive attacking soccer.

Croatian colossus Mato Neretljak turned out to be arguably the best buy of any team during last year's offseason, and Omiya has done well to retain his services.

Brazilian striker Raffael also chipped in with important goals after arriving in the summer, but it remains to be seen how long the club can continue to turn up gems in the transfer market.

This winter's intake, led by North Korean An Yong Hak and former Kawasaki Frontale man Kazuhiro Murakami, looks decent enough for Ardija to beat the drop again, and quite conceivably earlier than they did last season.


Last season: 14th

Vissel's late form last year was so awful that about the only thing that saved them from relegation was the fact that the end of the season meant there were no more games to lose.

A decent start to the campaign put enough points in the bank to survive, but Kobe's offseason transfer business has done little to suggest a change is around the corner.

South Korean midfielder Kim Nam Il heads an extensive list of departures, with Brazilians Edmilson and Popo the highest-profile new faces. Decent though both players are, it is worth noting that they are also the wrong side of 30 and arriving fresh from relegation with their previous clubs.

An injection of youth in an otherwise craggy team might have been wiser, and it will again be left to Yoshito Okubo to shoulder the burden. The striker's abortive stint at Wolfsburg was Vissel's gain, but manager Toshiya Miura must make sure his star man maintains his cutting edge among teammates that cannot match his talents.

The current Vissel side does not look like its legs can hold out for much longer, and an extensive overhaul will be needed eventually.


Last season: 15th

Montedio started brightly then faded horribly down the stretch after promotion last year, and would almost certainly have gone straight back down had it not been for striker Yu Hasegawa.

The 22-year-old scored 10 goals and carried the entire team on his broad shoulders for most of the campaign, so it bodes well that reinforcements have now arrived.

Hasegawa will be joined in attack by Yuzo Tashiro, who has been lured from Kashima Antlers in what looks like a great piece of business for Yamagata. Tashiro never fully established himself in the champions' first-choice lineup, but nonetheless played a big part in their three-in-a-row title triumph and will be hoping to emulate former teammate Atsushi Yanagisawa in proving there is life after Kashima.

The same goes for fellow Antlers alumni Chikashi Masuda, who will be joined by former JEF United Chiba captain Tomi Shimomura in a marked improvement on last year's midfield.

But that is not to say the new faces guarantee Yamagata survival. Last season's escape owed a heavy debt to the shortcomings of others, and the teams coming up this year look better than those they are replacing.


Last season: J2 champion

Sendai's promotion was no surprise after coming close in recent years, and last season's run to the Emperor's Cup semifinals was further proof of Makoto Teguramori's side's potential.

Vegalta scalped three first-division teams before Gamba denied them a place in the final, and those beaten opponents are hardly likely to be looking forward to visiting Yurtec Stadium in the league as well.

At the heart of Vegalta's fluid attacking style is North Korean midfielder Ryang Yong Gi, who will be keen to show what he can do after staying put at Sendai despite offers from bigger clubs in the past.

New arrivals have been low-key, but Teguramori seems justified in placing his trust in a group of players who have served him well so far.

With plenty of goals scored and few conceded last season, Vegalta are in as good shape as can be heading into the new campaign. That doesn't make survival a given, however, and if the first-division sides who struggled last year can buck up their ideas, Sendai will have to work hard to avoid being left behind.


Last season: second in J2

After watching Sanfrecce Hiroshima go from promotion to fourth in the first division last season, Cerezo will be dreaming of making a similar impact this time round.

With young internationals Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui on the books, the Osaka side will certainly not want for attention. The pair breezed through J2 last season, notching 47 goals between them, and both should be more than good enough to thrive at the top level.

Cerezo scored 100 goals last season, and their strike force has been further bolstered by the arrival of Ryuji Bando and Akihiro Ienaga from city rival Gamba.

Bando should be a good addition as long as he is not asked to bear the bulk of the scoring load, while Ienaga will be looking for something to get his teeth into after a frustrating two-year loan at Oita Trinita.

Teruyuki Moniwa also joins from FC Tokyo to help shore up a defense that was a shade on the generous side, but although Cerezo finished second in J2 they look like the strongest of this year's promoted sides.


Last season: third in J2

As the last team to clinch promotion last season, Shonan starts the new campaign as the automatic favorite to go back down first.

Bellmare pipped Ventforet Kofu for the third and final spot by a single point, and should really have wrapped things up long before the final day after maneuvering themselves into a good position earlier in the season.

Yasuharu Sorimachi's side will certainly have to step up a level to stand any chance of surviving, but the waters have been clouded by 11 players leaving and 11 arriving over the offseason.

Among those incoming are Tatsunori Arai from JEF United Chiba and Kenji Baba from Vissel Kobe, but it will be stalwarts such as Yoshito Terakawa and Yuzo Tamura who continue to form the backbone of the side.

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

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