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Friday, March 4, 2011
Can Stojkovic and Grampus do it better?

John Duerden

Much has happened in Japan since Nagoya Grampus players cavorted on Shonan Bellmare's pitch last November to take the title for the first time. Dragan Stojkovic could not keep an impish, even 'Pixy-like' grin off his face.

The same can be said of Japanese football in general. The national team became the champions of Asia for the fourth time in January and a growing number of stars are impressing in Europe.

Now it is back to domestic matters and the start of the 2011 J-League season.

The Contenders

Nagoya Grampus

What happens to the great underachievers when they finally achieve? We are about to find out.

It may well be that the excitement of last season and a first title win is always going to be hard to follow. As Brian Clough said to Don Revie after succeeding him at Leeds United almost 40 years ago, "The only thing I could do was to win the title better". Perhaps Stojkovic will say the same thing to himself in the mirror.

There was a certain pragmatism last year, as the team often did just enough to take the three points. The man himself wants good football, necessary if the rumblings that he is a future Wenger successor at Arsenal are to gather momentum.

How the team copes with being champions and being in Asia will determine their season. The addition of Jungo Fujimoto will help supply even more ammunition for the likes of Josh Kennedy and Keiji Tamada.

Key Player: Kensuke Nagai is 22 and a hot property. Nagoya beat off a host of clubs for the striker's signature.

Kashima Antlers

There's not much do to in Ibaraki except watch Kashima Antlers. The team's run of three successive titles was prevented from becoming a 'four-peat' by Nagoya.

What the club doesn't have in its well-stocked trophy cabinet however is a continental prize and there is a desire to remedy that in 2011. It could happen with a strong and well-balanced squad and a coach in Oswaldo Oliveira who knows how to get results. Much rests on whether new, and big, Brazilian striker Carlao can carry on where long-time goalscorer Marquinhos left off.

Key Player: Mitsuo Ogasawara may be the wrong side of 30 but when the cultured midfielder plays well then so do Kashima. They often play well.

Gamba Osaka

Osaka is a great place to eat, drink and be merry and with both clubs in the city finishing in the top three in 2010 and in the 2011 Asian Champions League, there is a feast of football for all. This Kansai club is in something of a transitional phase with a number of stars approaching the veteran stage of their careers. Even so, there is some serious talent with a top-class midfield - Yasuhito Endo just seems to get better and better - and a dangerous new Brazilian striker in the shape of Adriano, who scored lots for city rivals Cerezo last season.

Key Player: Many eyes will be on last season's Rookie of the Year Takeshi Usami to see if the 18-year-old can reproduce last season's form and whether he actually goes to Bayern Munich.

Kawasaki Frontale

The 'Arsenal of the East' are always the bridesmaids. Despite playing some good stuff, the Kanagawa club have three second-place spots in the previous four campaigns under their belt. Last season was a disappointing fifth. No distractions in the Asian Champions League can only help the team but the effects of the summer departures of star striker Jong Tae Se to Germany and international goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to Belgium could still be felt. The addition of former Yokohama F Marinos man Koji Tamase has helped to calm worries among fans.

Key Player: Kengo Nakamura is still there and the classy midfielder has some years at the top left yet.

The Outsiders

Urawa Reds

After winning the 2006 title, the club, the best-supported in Japan with an average of almost 40,000 in 2010, has been slowly slipping down the standings. The lengthy German coaching connection has just ended with the appointment of Zeljko Petrovic, the former assistant to Avram Grant at West Ham. He left Upton Park in November, calling the Premier League "crap", and not improving on last season's tenth place for Urawa may invite similar evaluations of his performance from supporters. He should be okay and his timing is good, as some of the young players at the club may be ready to move to the next level and the signing of the talented Marcio Richardes from Albirex Niigata is a big step in the right direction.

Key Players: At 20, Naoki Yamada has a bright future.

Cerezo Osaka

It has been a crazy few years for the Flaming Pinks. A movie based on the events would start in 2005 when the team lost the title in the last minute of the season. Relegation followed 12 months later. After missing out on two successive promotions, it all went right in 2009. Back in the top tier in 2010, Brazilian coach Levir Culip somehow led the team into third place. There is a feeling that that was something of an overachievement and the club may lack the strength in depth to challenge in the league and the Asian Champions League, especially after the departures of Shinji Kagawa last summer and the more recent exits of Akihiro Ienaga and Adriano. However, South Korea international Kim Bo-kyong returns from a loan spell.

Key Player: Takashi Inui - the 22-year-old attacking midfielder could take supporters' minds off the departures of other favourites.

Shimizu S-Pulse

It is going to be an interesting season. Long-serving coach Kenta Hasegawa is out and in comes Afshin Ghotbi fresh from leading Iran to the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup. He does not have an easy task. Star striker Shinji Okazaki is now at Stuttgart while Jungo Fugimoto joined Nagoya. On the plus side, the well-travelled duo of striker Naohiro Takahara and mercurial midfielder Daigo Kobayashi have joined, as has Australian star Alex Brosque.

Key Player: Shinji Ono - an injury-free season is what S-Pulse needs from the midfielder, who still has much to offer.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Serbian boss Mihailo Petrovic has worked wonders for the club since taking the reins in 2006. After winning promotion in 2008, the club has finished in fourth and seventh and even appeared in the 2010 Asian Champions League. A top-half finish would be another feather in Petrovic's cap, as would impressive performances from new signing Davit Mujiri. There are not many Georgian internationals in Asia.

Key Player: Fresh from his Asian Cup heroics, Tadanari Lee will be looking forward to the new season and perhaps the end of the Hisato Sato era at the club.

Yokohama F Marinos

The glory days are fast fading into memory by the bay. Two second-place finishes and, more importantly, two titles in the first half of the 'noughties' came at the same time that the World Cup final took place in the city. Since their last league win in 2004, Yokohama have been consistent in finishing in mid-table and have occupied the band that lies between seventh and tenth with commendable consistency. Only a brave man would bet against something similar in 2011 but if the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nakazawa can turn back the clock a little then who knows?

Key Player: Kazuma Watanabe had a great 2009 but couldn't quite maintain that last season. What happens in 2011 will go a long way to determining his and Yokohama's future.

The Middle Men

Kashiwa Reysol

The Yellows came roaring back into the top flight by dominating J2, as just two games were lost all season. Can coach Nelsinho emulate his Brazilian compatriot Levir Culip and take a newly-promoted side into the upper reaches of J1? That may not happen but Kashiwa have what it takes to survive without too much to worry about. There is a feel-good factor around the club and there have been some sensible signings in the shape of North Korean international An Yong Hak and Akihiro Hyodo. Former Celtic midfielder Koki Mizuno will be keen to make an impact too.

Key Player: Leandro. The Brazilian scored plenty in the promotion season and needs to do something similar in 2011.

Albirex Niigata

The biggest and best of the northern teams have had an interesting few seasons. They have threatened to become players in the J-league and have finished in the top half for three of the past four seasons, which represents a great improvement. The passionate fans - Niigata are the second-best supported club in the league - help too. What doesn't is the departure of star Brazilian midfielder Marcio Richardes to Urawa Reds. Will new Brazilian striker Bruno Lopes be able to cushion the blow?

Key Player: Cho Young-cheol. The young Korean striker could be in for a very good season.

Jubilo Iwata

Yokohama's great rivals at the turn of the millennium, Jubilo have slipped further from grace, even flirting with relegation, almost unthinkable for a team that were Asian champions in 1999 and runners-up for the following two years. During a magnificent seven-season stretch from 1997 to 2003, only a fourth-place finish in 2000 'spoilt' a run of three titles and three runners-up spots. There is not much to suggest that anything different is going to happen this year.

Key Player: Japanese international striker Ryoichi Maeda was one of the few Samurai Blue who struggled to impress at the Asian Cup. He should find the J-League more to his liking.

Omiya Ardija

The club were talking big at the start of the 2010 season but it didn't go exactly to plan and another lower mid-table finish (the club has never finished higher than 12th and lower than 15th since promotion at the end of 2004) was the result. At least a seventh successive season in the top flight was not in serious doubt and local rivals Urawa Reds were not far ahead. The once-strong Korean connection has weakened of late but new defender Kim Young-kwon looks to have a bright future.

Key Player: Lee Chun-soo also remains. One of the best in Asia just four short years ago, now the 'Millennium Kid' is settled in Japan; it is time for him to deliver.

The strugglers

Vissel Kobe

Just 25 minutes from Osaka on the train, Vissel are much further away when it comes to what happens on the pitch. Everyone remembers owner Hiroshi Mikitani promising to spend to make Vissel big but finding people who witnessed cash being splashed in the harbour city is more difficult. After years of mid-season mediocrity, the club has been slipping closer to the trapdoor. They looked dead and buried last season but a late surge just saved them, culminating in a 4-0 win at Urawa.

Key Player: Yoshito Okubo spearheads the attack but the striker is no longer as favoured for the national team as he was under 2010 World Cup coach Takeshi Okada.

Ventforet Kofu

A return to the top tier after an absence of three seasons is welcome for fans, though there is a good deal of trepidation mixed in there too. After relegation, the team finished seventh, fourth and then second in J2. It suggests gradual improvement and a continuation in that direction will be any spot clear of the relegation zone in 2011. The signing of Genki Nagasato could help.

Key Player: Mike Havenaar. Son of former goalkeeper Dido Havenaar, the striker managed 20 goals last season to shoot his team into the J1. Much depends on how many he can manage against the big boys.

Vegalta Sendai

Dodged the drop last year and have added a couple of big-name veterans such as long-time Kashima striker Marquinhos and former international Atsushi Yanagisawa in a bid to make 2011 more comfortable. The pair may just do the trick and at the back, the capture of solid defender and Asian champion Cho Byung-kuk from Seongnam was a very good one.

Key Player: North Korean international Ryang Yong Gi provides energy, commitment and goals from midfield. All will be needed.

Montedio Yamagata

Yamagata have confounded the critics by maintaining their elite status and are looking forward to a third season among the big boys. Much of their relative success has revolved around keeping things tight at the back.

Key Player: Hugo: If the giant Brazilian defender can settle in quickly then he could help the club stay in the top flight.

Avispa Fukuoka

The island of Kyushu once again is represented in Japan's top tier, though a tough few months lie ahead for fans in the pleasant coastal city out west. A first appearance in J1 since 2006 may not last long - Avispa finished third in the second division and haven't exactly splashed the cash since.

Key Player: Norihisa Shimizu. The veteran midfielder has been drafted in to give the team some much-needed top flight experience. He is going to be in for a busy time.

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