Kuala Lumpur: The Japanese J.League has produced finalists in each of the past three editions of the AFC Champions League, with Kashima Antlers’ 2018 triumph sandwiched between Urawa Red Diamonds lifting the trophy in 2017 and finishing as runners-up in 2019.
As well as developing a growing list of domestic stars, the league is also home to some of the biggest names in Asian and world football, and with just one round of the 2020 season played before the enforced COVID-19 break, the-AFC.com runs the rule over this year’s participants ahead of the restart on Saturday.
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Head coach: Ange Postecoglou
2019 result: Champions
Foreign players: Park Il-gyu (Korea Republic), Theerathon Bunmathan (Thailand), Thiago Martins (Brazil), Marcos Junior (Brazil), Erik (Brazil), Edigar Junio (Brazil)
Player to watch: Teruhito Nakagawa
Yokohama F.Marinos picked up their first league title in 15 years in 2019 by playing the proactive, attack-oriented football that has become characteristic of Ange Postecoglou sides.
They wrapped up glory by ending the 2019 campaign unbeaten in their last 11 games and winning each of their last seven, including a symbolic 4-1 triumph away to dethroned Kawasaki Frontale in the penultimate round and then a 3-0 cruise over runners-up FC Tokyo on the last weekend to make sure of the title. Teruhito Nakagawa was in especially scintillating form in the run-in, and as well as finishing joint top scorer with Marcos Junior he was also voted J.League Player of the Year.
The only notable departure was Mateus returning to parent club Nagoya Grampus after an impressive loan spell, while the squad has been neatly supplemented by striker Ado Onaiwu and some talented J2 players. Former captain Jun Amano and Ryuta Koike have also come in from Sporting Lokeren, meaning Marinos are certain to mount a stiff defence of their crown this year.
Head coach: Kenta Hasegawa
2019 result: 2nd
Foreign players: Joan Oumari (Lebanon), Adailton (Brazil), Leandro (Brazil), Arthur Silva (Brazil), Diego Oliveira (Brazil),
Player to watch: Diego Oliveira
FC Tokyo achieved their best ever finish last season, but having led the table for so long finishing as runners-up will still have seemed like a disappointment for the capital city club.
As in the previous year the team ultimately paid the price for their lack of goals, and once first choice strikers Diego Oliveira and Kensuke Nagai stopped finding the net not enough other players stepped up to the plate – Takefusa Kubo ended the campaign as their third top scorer, despite notching just four times and then leaving for Real Madrid in mid-season.
In order to avoid a repeat this year, proven J.League forwards Leandro and Adailton have been recruited to add extra scoring threat, and with the spine of Akihiro Hayashi, Masato Morishige and Yojiro Takahagi still in place the team should at least remain in the mix at the business end of the table.
Head coach: Antonio Carlos Zago
2019 result: 3rd
Foreign players: Kwoun Sun-tae (Korea Republic), Leo Silva (Brazil), Juan Alano (Brazil), Everaldo (Brazil)
Player to watch: Katsuya Nagato
The most successful club in the Japanese game, Kashima Antlers faded from the title picture at the end of last season and despite finishing third and claiming a spot in the 2020 AFC Champions League they were then eliminated in the Qualifiers after a shock home defeat to Melbourne Victory back in February.
That was new coach Antonio Carlos Zago’s first game in charge after replacing Go Oiwa, and with the team also tasting defeat against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on the opening day of the new league season, the enforced COVID-19 break will have provided some much-needed extra bedding-in time for the former Brazil international.
While several key players from the 2018 AFC Champions League winning side have moved on, the likes of Katsuya Nagato, Daiki Sugioka and Ryuji Izumi have been brought in ahead of this campaign and add quality to a squad which will as ever be targeting trophies.
Head coach: Toru Oniki
2019 result: 4th
Foreign players: Jung Sung-ryong (Korea Republic), Jesiel (Brazil), Diogo Mateus (Brazil), Leandro Damiao (Brazil)
Player to watch: Leandro Damiao
Kawasaki Frontale were targeting a third consecutive J1 crown last season, but ultimately couldn’t last the pace and had to settle for a fourth-place finish and lifting the J.League Cup.
Evergreen playmaker Kengo Nakamura suffered knee ligament damage at the end of the previous campaign but should soon be back to full fitness, although 2017 J.League Player of the Year Yu Kobayashi is likely to miss the first handful of games at least having picked up a knock in the middle of June.
That will provide Leandro Damiao with the opportunity to establish himself as a must-pick up front after a hit-and-miss first year at Todoroki Stadium, however, and with young talents Hidemasa Morita, Yasuto Wakizaka, and 2019 J.League Young Player of the Year Ao Tanaka all having another season under their belts and Miki Yamane a shrewd pick-up to improve the defence, the prospects look good for Frontale to make another challenge for silverware in 2020.
Head coach: Miguel Angel Lotina (Spain)
2019 result: 5th
Foreign players: Kim Jin-hyeon (Korea Republic), Ahn Joon-soo (Korea Republic), Matej Jonjic (Croatia), Leandro Desabato (Argentina), Lucas Mineiro (Brazil), Bruno Mendes (Brazil), Tawan Khotrsupho (Thailand)
Player to watch: Hiroshi Kiyotake
Spanish tactician Miguel Angel Lotina slid seamlessly into the Cerezo Osaka hot seat in his first season in charge last year, implementing his regimented, team-first style impressively quickly and establishing the team as a well-organised and compact outfit capable of snatching goals on quick breaks before stifling the opposition.
Despite the departures of Kota Mizunuma and Souza over the off-season, some useful options have been brought in to balance things out and ensure the squad remains in pretty much the same shape heading into the 2020 campaign.
High quality players like Kim Jin-hyeon, Matej Jonjic, and Hiroshi Kiyotake will once again play crucial roles, Yuta Toyokawa has come in from Eupen, and the club well known for nurturing young players like Shinji Kagawa, Yoichiro Kakitani, and Kiyotake has done well to snap up Tatsuhiro Sakamoto from J2 side Montedio Yamagata, after the youngster excelled in his first season as a professional last year.
Head coach: Hiroshi Jofuku
2019 result: 6th
Foreign players: Ezequiel (Brazil), Rhayner (Brazil), Douglas Vieira (Brazil), Leandro Pereira (Brazil)
Player to watch: Tsukasa Morishima
Sanfrecce Hiroshima clocked up another respectable top three finish last year, and Hiroshi Jofuku has established the habitual fast starters as one of the toughest propositions in the league.
Their style is fundamentally built upon keeping things well organised and compact in defence and midfield before looking to build attacks with direct play and plenty of balls into the area, and even with central midfielder Sho Inagaki having moved on to Nagoya Grampus the squad still looks to have decent strength in depth all over the park.
Keisuke Osako is one of Japan’s highest rated young goalkeepers, Sho Sasaki, Toshihiro Aoyama, and Toyofumi Kashiwa bring experience and composure, Hayao Kawabe, Gakuto Notsuda and the excellent Tsukasa Morishima are all capable of game-changing contributions, and new signing Ryo Nagai is an intriguing addition to the side who will offer the option of lightning pace to get in behind opposing defences.
Head coach: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto
2019 result: 7th
Foreign players: Lee Yun-oh (Korea Republic), Kim Young-gwon (Korea Republic), Oh Jae-suk (Korea Republic), Shin Won-ho (Korea Republic), Ademilson (Brazil), Patric (Brazil)
Player to watch: Takashi Usami
Gamba Osaka produced a steady finish last year in Japan legend Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s first full term in charge, with their form given a timely boost in mid-season by the return of youth products Yosuke Ideguchi and Takashi Usami from Europe.
The bulk of the squad has remained intact with no notable departures over the off-season, while some impressive recruitment has seen Gen Shoji brought back to Japan and the club where his youth career began after a difficult spell with Toulouse in France and Yuji Ono also come in from Sagan Tosu to add another dynamic option going forwards.
Gamba were the second Japanese team to win the AFC Champions League in 2008 and made the semi-finals as recently as 2015, and if they continue on their upward trajectory this year could see them mount a sustained challenge for a return to Asia’s premier club competition.
Head coach: Thorsten Fink (Germany)
2019 result: 8th
Foreign players: Thomas Vermaelen (Belgium), Dankler (Brazil), Sergi Samper (Spain), Andres Iniesta (Spain), Douglas (Brazil)
Player to watch: Andres Iniesta
One of the most talked about teams in Asia right now, Vissel Kobe won their first ever trophy last year, and by lifting the Emperor’s Cup they also made sure of their place in this year’s AFC Champions League.
They still had to make do with a disappointing mid-table finish in the J.League though, and despite two of their biggest names departing at the end of last season – David Villa retiring and Lukas Podolski returning to Turkey – they’ll be aiming to improve significantly on that showing in 2020 by getting involved in the title race.
Andres Iniesta is still controlling things in the middle of the park, Thomas Vermaelen brings experience and composure at the back, further big-name signings can’t be ruled out, and with Brazilian striker Douglas coming in from Shimizu S-Pulse and Kyogo Furuhashi getting better and better Vissel are sure to be in the mix.
Head coach: Tomohiro Katanosaka
2019 result: 9th
Foreign players: Mun Kyung-gun (Korea Republic)
Player to watch: Kazuki Kozuka
Last year’s surprise package, Oita Trinita started the 2019 season with a sensational win away to Kashima Antlers and then never looked back, playing positively irrespective of the opponent and looking to boss possession and make chances at speed.
Coach Tomohiro Katanosaka ultimately picked up the J.League’s Manager of the Year gong after steering the side to a ninth-place finish just three years after they were in the third division, and he will be looking to further cement their place in the top tier in 2020.
Top scorer Ado Onaiwu found the net 10 times last year and has moved on to Yokohama F.Marinos, and with Noriaki Fujimoto also having left for Vissel Kobe at the tail end of last season after notching eight times much will be expected of new signings Kei Chinen and Daiki Watari up front – although with the exceptional Kazuki Kozuka creating the chances they certainly won’t be short of opportunities in front of goal.
Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo
Head coach: Mihailo Petrovic
2019 result: 10th
Foreign players: Kawin Thamsatchanan (Thailand), Kim Min-tae (Korea Republic), Lucas Fernandes (Brazil), Chanathip Songkrasin (Thailand), Anderson Lopes (Brazil), Jay Bothroyd (England), Douglas Oliveira (Brazil)
Player to watch: Chanathip Songkrasin
Last season’s mid-table finish was something of a disappointment for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo after they went so close to securing a place in the AFC Champions League the previous year, but even so it marked another steady step in their development from yo-yo team to J1 challenger.
The off-season period saw very little in the way of meaningful transfer activity, and it looks like it will be evolution rather than revolution in 2020 – with the side sure to stick to the proactive, possession-based football Mihailo Petrovic has established as his staple in over a decade coaching J.League teams.
Thailand star Chanathip Songkrasin is key to Consadole’s chances of success – tasked with flitting around in the spaces between the opponent’s midfield and defence and looking to create chances for English veteran Jay Bothroyd and last season’s top scorer Musashi Suzuki – and if things click in the final third then another push for an AFC Champions League spot could be a possibility.
Head coach: Takashi Kiyama
2019 result: 11th
Foreign players: Jakub Slowik (Poland), Para (Brazil), Simao Mate (Mozambique), Isaac Cuenca (Spain), Alexandre Guedes (Portugal)
Player to watch: Takumi Sasaki
Vegalta Sendai preserved their place in the top flight without too much trouble in 2019, and it was something of a surprise when coach Susumu Watanabe was moved on at the end of the season after a steady six years in the dugout.
His replacement Takashi Kiyama will be coaching in the first division for the first time and arrives with a modest but unspectacular record in J2, where his teams were invariably set up to stifle opponents before aiming to break on the counter.
Club legend Ryang Yong-gi and last year’s standout player Katsuya Nagato have both moved on, and while a notable signing was made in the form of former Barcelona forward Isaac Cuenca he is ruled out with a knee injury until August, as is defensive stalwart Simao Mate. That means much will depend on talented 22-year-old Takumi Sasaki, who’s back after a couple of years impressing in snatches on loan spells in J2, and another new signing, Shuhei Akasaki.
Head coach: Peter Cklamovski
2019 result: 12th
Foreign players: Neto Volpi (Brazil), Valdo (Brazil), Hwang Seok-ho (Korea Republic), Elsinho (Brazil), Erick Noriega (Peru), Renato Augusto (Brazil), Carlinhos Junior (Brazil), Sergio Dutra Junior (Brazil), Teerasil Dangda (Thailand)
Player to watch: Teerasil Dangda
Shimizu S-Pulse are another of the clubs who flirted a little too closely with relegation last year, and they were proactive in the off-season by making a change in the dugout and bringing in Ange Postecolglou’s long-time assistant Peter Cklamovski in place of Yoshiyuki Shinoda.
The Australian has vowed to introduce the same proactive style of attacking football he was involved in producing at last year’s champions Yokohama F.Marinos, and there has been a lot of turnover ahead of the new campaign as he looks to recruit the players who can put that plan into action.
One big blow was the loss of last year’s top scorer Douglas to Vissel Kobe, although Thailand star Teerasil Dangda was quickly brought in to fill the boots of the Brazilian who struck 14 goals last year. This could be a year of transition for S-Pulse, but they should certainly be entertaining to watch.
Head coach: Massimo Ficcadenti
2019 result: 13th
Foreign players: Mitch Langerak (Australia), Joao Schmidt (Brazil), Gabriel Xavier (Brazil), Mateus (Brazil)
Player to watch: Naoki Maeda
Despite the wealth of talent in the squad Nagoya Grampus only just avoided relegation last season, with the team never quite adding up to the sum of their parts under Yahiro Kazama or his successor Massimo Ficcadenti.
Brazilian striker Jo recently completed a move back to Corinthians, but while he scored 30 goals in his 65 league games in Nagoya only six of them came last year, and the team’s key attacking spark looks like it will again be Naoki Maeda, who can both create chances and finish them off.
Ficcadenti has a reputation for building organised teams that are hard to break down, but Grampus have made some impressive additions to their attacking ranks for 2020 with Yuki Soma and Mateus returning from loans at Kashima Antlers and Yokohama F.Marinos, respectively, and Hiroyuki Abe and Mu Kanazaki also being brought on board, suggesting they may throw a little more caution to the wind this year.
Urawa Red Diamonds
Head coach: Tsuyoshi Otsuki
2019 result: 14th
Foreign players: Thomas Deng (Australia), Mauricio (Brazil), Ewerton (Brazil), Quenten Martinus (Curacao), Fabricio (Brazil), Leonardo (Brazil)
Player to watch: Shinzo Koroki
Despite finishing as runners-up in the 2019 AFC Champions League, last season was another of huge domestic underachievement for Urawa Red Diamonds, who ultimately finished just one point outside the relegation zone.
The squad boasts some top J.League talent in the likes of Shusaku Nishikawa, Tomoaki Makino and Yosuke Kashiwagi but has looked in need of rejuvenation for a couple of years now, and while there wasn’t a huge amount of transfer activity ahead of the new season the addition of Australia U23 captain Thomas Deng, who shone at the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020, and last year’s J2 top scorer Leonardo adds some undoubted quality to the side.
Leonardo looks a particularly intriguing signing, and having also top-scored in J3 in the 2018 season he could finally take some of the scoring pressure off main man Shinzo Koroki, who has netted double figures in each of the last eight seasons.
Head coach: Kim Myung-hwi
2019 result: 15th
Foreign players: Park Jeong-su (Korea Republic), Kim Min-ho (Korea Republic), Eduardo (Brazil), Wang Jianan (China PR), An Yong-woo (Korea Republic), Tiago Alves (Brazil), Cho Dong-geon (Korea Republic), Renzo Lopez (Uruguay)
Player to watch: Tomoya Koyamatsu
Sagan Tosu only avoided relegation on goal difference last year, and the club which just a couple of years ago turned heads by signing Spain legend Fernando Torres fell someway short of reaching their ambitions.
Torres retired in the middle of last season and several other key players have also moved on, with Isaac Cuenca, Yuji Ono and Mu Kanazaki all heading for pastures new, leaving the make-up of the squad somewhat less familiar.
The replacements coming in are mostly squad players from elsewhere or talented but unproven picks from the second division, and the bulk of the expectations in what looks like being a long year for Tosu are likely to be placed on former Nagoya Grampus winger Tomoya Koyamatsu, who excelled in J2 last year for Kyoto Sanga.
Head coach: Bin Ukishima
2019 result: 16th
Foreign players: Tarik El Younoussi (Norway)
Player to watch: Tarik El Younoussi
Shonan Bellmare only preserved their place in the top flight after seeing off a challenge from J2 side Tokushima Vortis in last year’s promotion/relegation play-off, and they head into this campaign looking to make a fresh start in Bin Ukishima’s first full season in charge.
The 52-year-old only oversaw seven games at the end of the 2019 campaign and did just about enough to keep the team up, but with key players Miki Yamane, Daiki Sugioka and Ryogo Yamasaki all having left for Kawasaki Frontale, Kashima Antlers and Nagoya Grampus, respectively, he faces a rebuilding challenge this year.
Some useful new signings have arrived though, and as well as bolstering the midfield by acquiring Hidetoshi Miyuki and Akimi Barada, solid reinforcements have also been added in attack thanks to the arrivals of Norway international Tarik El Younoussi and veteran goal-getter Naoki Ishihara.
Head coach: Nelsinho Baptista (Brazil)
2019 result: J2 champions
Foreign players: Kim Seung-gyu (Korea Republic), Richardson (Brazil), Matheus Savio (Brazil), Cristiano (Brazil), Michael Olunga (Kenya), Junior Santos (Brazil)
Player to watch: Michael Olunga
Kashiwa Reysol stormed to the J2 title with characteristic aplomb in 2019, as their attacking triumvirate of Cristiano, Ataru Esaka and Michael Olunga proved too much for opposing defences to handle and scored 57 goals between them – Olunga famously netting a league-record eight goals in a 13-1 defeat of Kyoto Sanga on the final day of the season.
The squad has been bolstered by some of the best of the rest from the second tier last year, with Sachiro Toshima, Hayato Nakama and Yuta Kamiya three excellent additions, while Kim Seung-gyu has also arrived from Ulsan Hyundai to provide top class competition for Kosuke Nakamura in goal.
The team started this season exactly how they ended the previous one with a thrilling 4-2 win over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo back in February, and if they carry on in the same manner they may even have a chance of repeating their feat of 2011, when they followed success in the second tier by winning J1.
Head coach: Takahiro Shimotaira
2019 result: J2 runners-up
Foreign players: Maguinho (Brazil), Calvin Jong-a-Pin (Netherlands), Leandro Domingues (Brazil), Abdurahim Laajab (Norway)
Player to watch: Yusuke Matsuo
Yokohama FC worked their way back into J1 for the first time since 2007 with a solid showing in 2019, losing just one of their last 24 games to seal the second automatic promotion spot.
The spine of the team is built around a host of experienced players including Shunsuke Nakamura, Daisuke Matsui, Masahiko Inoha and Calvin Jong-a-Pin – while the legendary Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura famously also remains part of the squad at the seasoned age of 53.
Those veterans are ably supported by a host of talented youngsters, however, with Yusuke Matsuo, Katsuhiro Nakayama, Yuki Kusano and 18-year-old Koki Saito all making telling contributions last year, while Tatsuki Seko, signed from Meiji University ahead of this season, announced himself in style by scoring in the 1-1 draw away to Vissel Kobe on the opening weekend. If they can get the blend right again, Yokohama should provide a match for anybody.
Saturday: Yokohama FC vs Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, Shimizu S-Pulse vs Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka vs Cerezo Osaka, Oita Trinita vs Sagan Tosu, Urawa Red Diamonds vs Yokohama F. Marinos, Kashiwa Reysol vs FC Tokyo, Kawasaki Frontale vs Kashima Antlers, Shonan Bellmare vs Vegalta Sendai, Vissel Kobe vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
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