As football slowly takes on greater significance in the Japanese national character, the sporting public await the seasons curtain raiser on Saturday, in the hope that 2014 will bring the same excitement as the 2013 campaign writes Chris Collins.
The close season has been dominated by the transfer of Uruguayan international Diego Forlan to Cerezo Osaka, a move which has led to many observers installing last seasons third place team as title favourites. He will play up front in tandem with Yoichiro Kakitani ,who himself was responsible for a vintage crop of goals last season, in a striking partnership which many elite European clubs would be delighted to have at their disposal.
For Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who play Cerezo in the weekends standout fixture, the joy of last seasons championship win will have faded as they prepare to defend their title and clinch three league wins in succession. While they have made a number of new signings, the core of their team remains, and despite the departure of international goalkeeper Nishikawa to Urawa Reds, their effective blend of youth and experience, and the underlying strength of their game, is likely to be enough to see them contest for all major honours again.
Urawa Reds and Yokohama F Marinos, both of whom choked badly in the 2013 run in, will be principal contenders for the title alongside Cerezo and Sanfrecce. If Michael Petrovic can finally assemble his players in the correct fashion , shore up their defence and get them to adhere to tactical instructions, then the Reds will have enough firepower to leave most J1 sides in their slipstream. Free from strength-sapping continental entanglements in the Asian Champions League due to their miserable sixth placed finish, expect the Saitama giants to set the early season pace.
Whether F Marinos ageing squad can replicate their efforts from last season is another matter. Their close season signings have been relatively underwhelming, while they have also lost the goalscoring services of Brazilian Marquinhos, who has signed on for Vissel Kobe. Crucially, they have retained their effervescent young winger Manubu Saito, at least for the short term, and in the shape of Shunsuke Nakamura they have a player of incomparable stature in the Japanese game. While they will be keen to make up for last seasons traumatic collapse when the title was within their grasp, a top three finish would be a hugely successful campaign.
A clutch of J1 clubs will aim to make inroads into the upper echelons of the table including Kashima Antlers, Kawasaki Frontale, FC Tokyo, Kashiwa Reysol and perhaps even J2 title winners Gamba Osaka.
Fellow new boys Tokushima Vortis and Vissel Kobe will seek to avoid the trapdoor back to the second tier while the likes of Ventforet Kofu, Sagan Tosu and Omiya Ardija will hope to cement their status as J1 clubs. No one can ever predict with any great certainty how the unpredictables of Shimizu S-Pulse will fare, but their wonderful ground in the shadow of Mount Fuji will undoubtedly provide a beautiful backdrop to many exciting, high scoring matches.
There were some incredible goals and matches in J1 last season, all played out in front of some of the most extraordinary and passionate fans on earth. A repeat of the 2013 campaign will be a treat for football fans tuning into events in the Far East. Wild fluctuations in form and fortune, and a generation of technically accomplished players, combine to make the J-League one of the most exciting domestic competitions on planet football.
So as the new season fast approaches, abandon your nostalgic attachment to European football and look in on the J-League in 2014. You wont regret it.
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