With the majority of the major European leagues approaching their climax, the season is just about to begin for Japanese football fans when the J-League kicks off on March 5th.
The 2011 season will be the first since 1999 to feature no teams from the capital after FC Tokyo were relegated on the final day of the 2010 season following a loss to Kyoto Sanga FC, who had alreadybeen sentenced to a season in the J2 League.
At the other end of the table, Nagoya Grampus Eight will be looking to retain their title after winning the championship for the first time in their 72 year history (Fans unfamiliar with the J-League may remember Grampus after they played home to Gary Lineker and Arsene Wenger during the 1990s). It was an outstanding season for Dragan Stojkovic’s side as they finished 10 points clear at the top thanks to the brilliant form of Narazaki between the sticks and J-League top scorer Joshua Kennedy.
Their domination continued at the annual J-League awards as goalkeeper Narazaki won the Player of the Year award, Stojkovic picked up the outstanding manager award and Tulio, Masukawa and Danilson joined Narazaki and Kennedy in the J.League’s Best Eleven.
Last season’s top scorer, Australian striker Joshua Kennedy.
Hoping to rival Grampus for the title will be Osaka rivals Gamba and Cerezo, who both qualified for this season’s AFC Champions League. Gamba are used to dining at the J.League’s top table after finishing in the top three in 7 of the last 9 seasons and they will expect to make that 8 out of 10 in 2011. Cerezo however, will be under pressure to replicate their unbelievable form of 2010, where they finished 3rd having only been promoted from the J2 League the previous season.
Another team who will fancy their chances of lifting silverware will be the Kashima Antlers, who finished 4th in 2010 after a winning three successive titles in the previous years (underlining their
status as Japan’s most successful club). Kashima have long enjoyed a connection with Brazil, thanks to previous association with Zico, and they will hope their newest recruit Carlão can be their latest South American success story. Carlão joins from Portguese side Leira where he scored an impressive 26 goals in 54 games. The Antlers are hungry for success and are desperate to bring back the trophy that they have been so used to holding in the last 5 years. A striker with European pedigree like Carlão could be the key to winning it back.
One of the biggest and most successful Japanese teams, the Yokohama F. Marinos have struggled in recent years after a series of mid-table finishes and have not won the J.League title since 2004. Manager Kazushi Kimura is under pressure to bring silverware back to Yokohama after the club went through 4 manager in 3 years as they struggled to find a successor to Takeshi Okada. A familiar name to British viewers will be former Celtic playmaker Shensuke Nakamura, who now plies his trade at Yokohama F. Marinos after returning to his homeland in 2010. Despite his age, Nakamura remains one of the most talented players in the league and if he can find his form then Yokohama will be in contention for a top four place.
Veteran playmaker, Shensuke Nakamura
The Urawa Red Diamonds, the most popular team in Japan, are another side who could be accused of underachieving having failed to follow up their sole title in 2006. In Brazilian striker Edmilson they have one of the most prolific strikers in the J.League and he hits top form then they will be competing with the likes of Grampus and Gamba for the title. He will be supported by one of Japan’s brightest young talents Yosuke Kashiwagi, a technically gifted left-footed playmaker who is sure to gain admirers as the season goes on.
Urawa’s great young hope. Yosuke Kashiwaghi
One of the most intriguing aspects of the J.League is it’s unpredictability with any of the top 10 capable of putting together a run and qualifying for the Champions League. For instance, recently relegated FC Tokyo finished 5th in 2009 whilst last season’s Champions Grampus ended that year in 9th. The likes of Shimizu S-Pulse, Kawasaki Frontale and Albirex Niigata will all be threats to the already mentioned Grampus, Gamba, Kashima and Cerezo.
It may not be the most high profile league and the players might not all be of the standard that European fans are used to, but the atmospheres are some of the best in the world and young talent is emerging all the time. Couple that with the exciting and unpredictable nature of the league and you have a very watchable and enjoyable league.