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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Grampus favored to repeat as J. League champions

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 class: Danilson Cordoba (center) and Nagoya Grampus look poised to repeat as J. League champions. KYODO PHOTO


Last season: champion

The 10-point gap between first and second place showed how much Grampus deserved their maiden J. League title last season, and also how difficult it will be for challengers to take it off them in 2011.

Nagoya's march toward the trophy was not always pretty, but it was nothing if not effective. Dragan Stojkovic's side bounced back to win the next game after each of its eight defeats, and stayed relatively consistent while others went through difficult patches.

Nagoya's squad was already the strongest and deepest in the league, and Stojkovic has made sure no one rests on their laurels by signing two of the best players on the market. Midfielder Jungo Fujimoto and quicksilver striker Kensuke Nagai add yet more heavy artillery to the Grampus arsenal, and with a serious assault on the Asian Champions League expected, the manager will need to shuffle his pack carefully over what could be a long and tiring season.

Still, he has the personnel to do it, and with players like Josh Kennedy, Danilson Cordoba and the inspirational Marcus Tulio Tanaka on board, anything is possible. Nagoya now has a winning mentality to match its undoubted quality, and motivation is hardly likely to be a problem.

On the starting grid for this year's championship, Nagoya is very much in pole position.


Last season: second

Gamba has made a habit of launching late bids for the title in recent years, and manager Akira Nishino must be wondering what could have been had his team clicked into gear sooner.

Gamba finished second after dawdling outside the top five until the 22nd round last year, but even that sluggish early form could not prevent the Kansai side from racking up a league-high 65 goals.

The arrival of striker Adriano from city rival Cerezo should help maintain that standard, and Nishino boasts such an array of attacking talent that the goals could come from anywhere.

Midfielder Hideo Hashimoto has been ruled out with injury for six months, however, and the departure to Europe of left-back Michihiro Yasuda leaves another question mark.

Fortunately for Nishino, the positives outweigh the negatives going into the new campaign. Teenage attacker Takashi Usami announced himself as a player of enormous potential last season and can only improve, while wily playmaker Yasuhito Endo shows no signs of letting up yet.

With a strong start, Gamba could be champions.


Last season: third

Cerezo could not have wished for a better return to the top flight last season, claiming a place in the Asian Champions League at the first time of asking after a hugely impressive campaign.

The fact that boy wonder Shinji Kagawa left during the World Cup break was of little importance as Levir Culpi's side surged up the table over the summer, and finishing above three-time champion Kashima Antlers was an exceptional achievement for a newly promoted team.

The price for such success, of course, is covetous glances from other clubs, and losing attacking midfielder Akihiro Ienaga to Mallorca and striker Adriano to Gamba Osaka is an undoubted blow.

But there is still more to come from the Cerezo production line. Takashi Inui will be eager to establish himself among the league's top players after an excellent 2010, while Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kim Bo Kyung are also outstanding prospects.

Plenty of experienced heads and a solid defense mean there is steel to complement the silk, and Culpi has proved his ability to forge a close-knit team from raw ingredients.

The demands of the ACL might prevent a serious title bid, but there is no reason why Cerezo should not be among the leaders again come the business end of the season.


Last season: fourth

Kashima's stranglehold on the title had to end sometime, but it was still a surprise to see Oswaldo Oliveira's men slump home in fourth last season.

To be fair to the now former champions, Antlers kept themselves in the championship race for longer than they should have, and it was they who put up the strongest resistance to Nagoya Grampus regardless of final league positions.

Is this the end for what has been arguably the league's best team ever?

Hardly, but there have been some significant changes, with the prolific Marquinhos leaving for Vegalta Sendai and promising midfielder Takuya Honda arriving from Shimizu S-Pulse.

Whether now is the right time to cut the 34-year-old Marquinhos depends on if Shinzo Koroki, Yuzo Tashiro, Yuya Osako and newcomer Carlao can fill his sizable boots, and Honda will also have to prove he is worth a starting place with Kashima's midfield practically set in stone in recent years.

Brazilian veteran Alex and loan returnee Chikashi Masuda will also provide competition, and Antlers certainly have greater strength in depth than last season.

But do they have enough fit and able generals to lead the foot soldiers?

Kashima will certainly be there or thereabouts come December, but Nagoya and Gamba Osaka look stronger.


Last season: fifth

Frontale thought they had what it took to make the breakthrough after two successive years as runnerup, but instead ended up going backward as last season's campaign crumbled around their ears.

The post-World Cup double departure of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and striker Chong Tese proved too much for Tsutomu Takahata's side, and injuries to midfield maestro Kengo Nakamura and striker Juninho early in the season did not help either.

Frontale did well to haul themselves back into the fringes of the title race, but a fifth-place finish was not good enough and Takahata has been replaced with former player Naoki Soma after only one season at the helm. Three managers in three years is hardly a recipe for success, and Soma's task is complicated by a number of comings and goings over the offseason.

It is debatable whether Frontale have strengthened by swapping Hiroyuki Taniguchi for Yokohama F. Marinos midfielder Koji Yamase, and the departure of several veterans and squad members could also come back to haunt the Kanagawa club.

Frontale still have enough talent to win something, but it is hard to shake the feeling that their best days have been and gone.


Last season: sixth

A revolution has taken place at S-Pulse, with practically the entire first-team lineup plus manager Kenta Hasegawa leaving over the winter.

The exodus puts an emphatic full stop on an era that promised much but delivered little, and it remains to be seen if the replacements have what it takes to write a successful new chapter.

New manager Afshin Ghotbi is certainly an intriguing choice to oversee the rebuilding. An Iranian-American who worked under South Korea's Guus Hiddink at the 2002 World Cup and led Iran to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in January, Ghotbi should bring something new to the league and may be just the spark new signing Naohiro Takahara needs to rekindle his goalscoring flame.

Fellow veteran Shinji Ono will also be important, but the 31-year-old faded as last season wore on and he will need younger legs to pick up the slack with Jungo Fujimoto and Takuya Honda now gone.

The onus will also be on new signings like Daigo Kobayashi and Alex Brosque to settle in quickly, and with so many disparate strands the task facing Ghotbi is indeed a daunting one.

As unpalatable as it may sound for one of the league's best teams in recent years, even relegation is not out of the question.


Last season: seventh

Repeating 2009's fourth-place finish was always going to be a tall order for Sanfrecce, but seventh in the league and runnerup in the Nabisco Cup last season was an impressive return nevertheless.

Some changes have taken place since then, however, with all-action defender Tomoaki Makino leaving for Germany and former national team member Hiroki Mizumoto arriving in his stead. Makino's influence ran deep through Mihailo Petrovic's team, and although Mizumoto is capable enough, the additional departure of veteran Ilian Stoyanov means he will have to find his feet fast.

Resources look stronger at the other end of the lineup, with Hisato Sato, Yojiro Takahagi and Asian Cup hero Tadanari Lee giving Petrovic plenty of options in attack.

Goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, midfielder Mihael Mikic and defender Ryota Moriwaki are others who can be expected to make a big contribution, and if Sanfrecce get the rub of the green it could turn out to be a productive season.

A place in the Asian Champions League and another cup final appearance are by no means out of reach.


Last season: eighth

Manager Kazushi Kimura wants nothing less than the J. League title, and while he is almost certain to end up disappointed, Marinos showed enough last season to suggest they are at least heading in the right direction.

Shunsuke Nakamura was quietly effective once the blaze of publicity surrounding his return died down, and he can again be expected to thrive with the pressure of maintaining his place in the national team now a thing of the past.

Koji Yamase's departure to Kawasaki Frontale has been offset by Hiroyuki Taniguchi moving in the opposite direction, and an already-strong defense has been bolstered by the arrival of Naoaki Aoyama from Shimizu S-Pulse and loan returnee Kim Kun Hoan.

But Marinos' reluctance to fill their foreigner quota remains puzzling. Argentine reserve striker Pablo Bastianini is the only non-Japanese or Korean on the books, and the feeling persists that the team could have scored more than 43 goals last season with a couple of decent Brazilians in the lineup.

That should not preclude Marinos from success this time out, but Kimura's best chance of parading any silverware lies with the cups rather than the league.


Last season: ninth

Albirex did well last year given the offseason departure of key players, but the Hokuriku club faces yet another rebuilding process with the spine ripped out of the team again this winter.

Brazilian playmaker Marcio Richardes — one of the league's best players in recent years — has joined Urawa Reds along with center-back Mitsuru Nagata, who made the breakthrough into the national team last season and will be missed.

But there is still talent left in the Albirex well. Teenage defender Gotoku Sakai was taken to South Africa to train with Japan's World Cup squad last summer, midfielder Isao Homma is as steady as they come, and Brazilian Michael is a crafty presence behind the strikers.

But the jewel in Niigata's crown is South Korean attacker Cho Young Cheol. The 21-year-old rattled in 11 goals last season, has lightning pace, clinical finishing ability and will be looking to stamp his name all over the new campaign.

If he can do so, Marcio will soon be forgotten and Albirex can expect another top-half finish. If he can't, it could be a difficult year.

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