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Friday, March 4, 2011

Survival on top of agenda for J. League's lower half


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
Main man: Ryoichi Maeda, who helped lead Jubilo Iwata to the Nabisco Cup title in 2010, will be counted on to keep the club in the J. League's first division this season. KYODO PHOTO

URAWA REDS

Last season: 10th

Urawa has effectively been in a state of crisis ever since throwing away the 2007 championship, but the Saitama side has nonetheless gone into every subsequent season with a realistic chance of winning the title.

This year, however, with yet another managerial change and a squad that looks distinctly average when compared to the main contenders, a simple step in the right direction would suffice.

That is not to say the new man in charge, former player Zeljko Petrovic, does not have quality at his disposal. Marcio Richardes, brought in from Albirex Niigata, is one of the best playmakers in circulation, while Yosuke Kashiwagi, Tatsuya Tanaka and Genki Haraguchi all give the Montenegrin options.

The ace up Urawa's sleeve, however, is Naoki Yamada, who dazzled in 2009 before missing practically all of last year through injury. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder is a rare talent, but his skill is the exception in a squad of limited ability.

Reds will be hoping Petrovic can emulate his former Yugoslavia teammate Dragan Stojkovic in winning the league title, but it must be remembered that the Nagoya Grampus manager took three years to do so. This year, more than ever, patience will be the watchword for Urawa.

JUBILO IWATA

Last season: 11th

Not much has changed for Jubilo after a season that ended with a first trophy in seven years after a rip-roaring Nabisco Cup final win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

That Ryoichi Maeda — the hero of that day and the undoubted linchpin of the side — remains at the club is the most important news, although the loss of Omiya Ardija-bound Kota Ueda and Sho Naruoka, who has joined Avispa Fukuoka, will be felt.

Jubilo neither challenged for league honors nor flirted with relegation last season, and that steady sailing seems to have convinced the club that a nip and tuck here and there is sufficient preparation for the new campaign.

A total of 49 goals conceded suggests otherwise, and the fact that Maeda accounted for almost half of the 38 scored is not a good sign either. Jubilo has been steadily climbing back to a safe middle ground since surviving a relegation playoff in 2008, but that does not mean it can now rest easy.

Complacency could yet prove to be Jubilo's undoing, especially if Maeda fails to keep up his standards.

OMIYA ARDIJA

Last season: 12th

Omiya has ambitions higher than simply staving off relegation each year, but that has been the club's lot ever since leaving the second division behind in 2004.

Some good signings over that period have hinted that Ardija are capable of better things, and incoming midfielder Kota Ueda from Jubilo Iwata is, at 24 but with plenty of experience under his belt, exactly the kind of player who could be expected to steer them in the right direction.

But things are never so simple. Defensive bedrock Mato Neretljak has returned to Samsung Suwon Blue Wings in South Korea, leaving a sizable hole that newcomer Kim Young Gwon may find difficult to fill. On balance, it is doubtful whether Omiya's squad is any stronger than it was last season.

A 12th-place finish slightly masked the trouble the Saitama side had securing survival, but signs of progress after Jun Suzuki replaced Chang Woe Ryong midseason nonetheless offer hope for the future.

Whether Ardija can finally turn that into something concrete remains to be seen, but if the team can supply strikers Rafael and Lee Chun Soo with enough ammunition, this could be the year.

MONTEDIO YAMAGATA

Last season: 13th

Montedio managed to put enough early points together to avoid being too heavily embroiled in last season's relegation scrap, but a league-worst 29 goals scored shows exactly where the club's problems lie.

That the man who scored 10 of those, Yuzo Tashiro, has returned to Kashima Antlers after a season on loan suggests manager Shinji Kobayashi had better have someone good up his sleeve to replace him. Japanese-Egyptian striker Osama Elsamni, who played for Teplice in the Czech League last season, is an interesting choice but may not be able to make the immediate impact that Tashiro enjoyed.

Elsewhere, Brazilian defender Hugo Alcantara is another intriguing signing, coming as he does with Champions League experience with Romania's CFR Cluj, but tried-and-trusted war horses are short on the ground. Chikashi Masuda has followed Tashiro back to Antlers, and if the going gets tough Montedio could flounder.

It will require a much better season from striker Yu Hasegawa — just one goal to his name last year — to prevent that from happening, and another strong start could be the difference between life and death.

VEGALTA SENDAI

Last season: 14th

Vegalta's eventual survival was remarkably straightforward given its 14-match winless streak earlier last season, and a clutch of eye-catching signings has fueled hopes of further progress for the Tohoku club.

Brazilian striker Marquinhos arrives after four trophy-laden years at Kashima Antlers, and the 2008 J. League player of the year has been joined by his former striking partner in Ibaraki, Atsushi Yanagisawa.

With a combined age of 67 the pair come with obvious limitations, but both are proven finishers who will thrive given good service. Sendai certainly has that with North Korean schemer Ryang Yong Gi pulling the strings in midfield, and Kunimitsu Sekiguchi found his way into Alberto Zaccheroni's national team setup last season.

Sendai has all the bearings of a club aiming for better things, and this season's fortunes could depend on the psychological legacy of last year's barren spell. If Vegalta has emerged stronger from the experience, any bumps in the road ahead should be no problem. If they haven't, one wrong move and it could all come crashing down.

VISSEL KOBE

Last season: 15th

Vissel will not need reminding how lucky it was to stay up last season, beating Urawa Reds on the final day while FC Tokyo signed its own death warrant with defeat to second-from-bottom Kyoto Sanga.

A late upturn of form was enough to secure survival, but for most of the season Kobe looked deserved relegation material. Last year's escape came hot on the heels of another dalliance with danger in 2009, and there is little to suggest a smoother ride is in store this time round.

The usually voracious Kansai club has been quiet in the transfer market, with no marquee signings of the type that brought Yoshito Okubo, Kim Nam Il and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto to Kobe in recent years.

Instead manager Masahiro Wada, who took over late last season to steer the side to safety, must work with an aging, downtrodden squad which could certainly have done with a little freshening up. That means responsibility again falls squarely on Okubo's shoulders, with the lively Brazilians Popo and Botti bustling and creating alongside him.

This could be the year that Kobe's luck finally runs out.

KASHIWA REYSOL

Last season: J2 champion

Reysol responded to relegation in 2009 with a thoroughly impressive J2-winning season, and manager Nelsinho can now justifiably set his sights a little higher than mere top-flight survival.

Kashiwa went top of the second division after five rounds and never slipped back once, eventually finishing a full 10 points clear of nearest challenger Ventforet Kofu. The Chiba side lost only two games along the way, and romped home with a massive plus-47 goal difference.

Transfer activity since then has been modest, but Kashiwa clearly has a solid foundation already in place. Akihiro Hyodo, Jorge Wagner and An Young Hak have come in to reinforce the midfield, while the loss of players such as defender Yuzo Kobayashi should be surmountable.

Promoted teams have done superbly in recent years, with both Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Cerezo Osaka breaking into the Asian Champions League places at the first time of asking. That is perhaps too big a challenge for Reysol, but a top-half finish should be an achievable target.

VENTFORET KOFU

Last season: second in J2

Ventforet returns to the first division after three years away, and the addition of some experienced heads to the free-scoring side that secured promotion last season gives them a fighting chance of staying there.

Kofu matched J2 champion Kashiwa Reysol for goals scored with 71 each, and although a less-impressive 40 conceded shows why Toshiya Miura's side had to settle for second place, steps have been taken to tighten things up at the back.

The arrival of former Shimizu S-Pulse stalwarts Daisuke Ichikawa and Teruyoshi Ito brings Ventforet the benefit of more than 800 first-division appearances combined, while Daisuke Tomita and Teruaki Kobayashi also come with top-flight experience.

At the other end, striker Mike Havenaar was J2's top scorer with 20 goals last season, and the 23-year-old will be keen to finally make his mark in the first division after a frustrating spell at Yokohama F. Marinos earlier in his career. The son of former J. League goalkeeper Dido Havenaar has certainly improved since then, and he will be looking to prove it by hitting double figures.

Ventforet's survival may well depend on it.

AVISPA FUKUOKA

Last season: third in J2

No one in Fukuoka will be expecting anything other than a long, tough season after returning to the first division via the final promotion place.

Given the modest resources at manager Yoshiyuki Shinoda's disposal, it is easy to see why the Kyushu side begins the season as favorite for the drop. Genuine quality is thin on the ground, and top-level experience is at a premium.

Kosuke Nakamachi and Toshiya Sueyoshi will be expected to make things tick in midfield, while Hisashi Jogo and on-loan Kentaro Shigematsu go in search of goals. Sho Naruoka has been signed from Jubilo Iwata to add creativity in attack, and veteran striker Norihisa Shimizu has also arrived from Yokohama F. Marinos.

A defense that conceded only 34 goals last season can be of comfort to Shinoda, and 35-year-old center-back Makoto Tanaka has seen it all before after 14 years at the top with Jubilo Iwata.

Avispa can also take heart from the success of newly promoted teams in recent years, although that did not extend as far as last season's third-place qualifier Shonan Bellmare, which finished rock bottom with only 16 points.

Avoiding a similar fate will be Fukuoka's No. 1 target. Note: Part II of this season's J. League preview will run in tomorrow's editions.



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