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2020 J1 Preview Part 1… teams 1-9

Here it is…the first half of my JLeague Preview featuring the teams I think will rank 1st-9th.

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This may be the only non Gamba specific article I do this year, but I thought I’d run down all 18 J1 teams and make some predictions for the year ahead. Teams are in order of where I think they’ll finish this year. In part 1 it’s the teams I think will place 1st-9th.

*The Key Players I’ve selected for each team are not necessarily the best players, more the ones whose good performances or lack of will influence their team the most.

Here we go…

1. Yokohama F.Marinos (last year:1st)
Director: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ado Onaiwu (Urawa) / Mateus (Nagoya)
Key Player: Marcos Junior
Lowdown: Last season’s champions have retained their manager and everyone in their first team with the exception of Mateus (who’s returned to Nagoya). The new signings seem more designed to add depth ahead of this season’s ACL campaign, however, Ado Onaiwu (10 J1 goals in 2019) and Kota Mizanuma (7 goals, 2 assists in 31 games) appear to be shrewd captures. Edigar Junio (11 goals in 16 games before injury last year) returns and could form a mouth watering front 3 alongside Erik (8 in 12) and last year’s J1 MVP Teruhito Nakagawa (15 goals, 10 assists in 33). They did have injuries in 2019 but the spine of the team; Thiago Martins, Hatanaka, Kida, Marcos Junior and Nakagawa all played at least 33 J1 games, will they be able to cope with the extra rotation that Champions League football will inevitably bring? Winning back-to-back titles will be tough but I don’t think any of their rivals have improved enough to overtake them, so as I see it, they’d need to regress / focus too much on ACL / have loads of injuries, if they’re to not lift the J1 crown again this year.
Predicted Starting XI:
Matsubara-Thiago Martins-Hatanaka-Theerathon
Marcos Junior

2. Kashima Antlers (3rd)
Director: Antonio Carlos Zago (new)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ryotaro Araki (Higashi Fukuoka HS) / Serginho (Changchun Yatai)
Key Player: Shoma Doi
Lowdown: They seemed to run out of steam badly at the end of 2019, but in true Kashima fashion still finished 3rd and reached the final of the Emperor’s Cup. A surprise ACL exit in the qualifiers may actually play to their advantage domestically this year. I feel Brazilians hold the key to their 2020 campaign, Antonio Carlos Zago is the new head coach and he has a couple of his countrymen in Everaldo and Juan Alano joining him in Ibaraki. How well they combine to replace the departed Serginho (20 goals in 50 games in all competitions in 2019) will have a big impact on their title chances. The signings of Tatsuki Nara (who knocked Gamba back again), Daiki Sugioka, Katsuya Nagato and Rikuto Hirose should bring more stability at the back, however, if Bueno continues to play regularly then scrap my 2nd place prediction.
Predicted Starting XI:
Misao-Leo Silva
Juan Alano-Doi-Izumi

3. Kawasaki Frontale (4th)
Director: Toru Oniki (4th)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Zain Issaka (Toin Yokohama Univ.) / Hiroyuki Abe (Nagoya)
Key Player: Leandro Damiao
Lowdown: The 2017 and 2018 champions were well off the pace in a disappointing year for them last time out. Frontale seemed to shoot themselves in the foot by letting Elsinho join Shimizu (I’m still utterly baffled by this), refusing to play right-backs at right-back, signing foreigners but rarely using them and being unable to find a regular role for Leandro Damiao. That said, this is still one of the most talented squads in Japan and an infusion of youth in the form of recent university graduates, Issaka, Mitoma, Kamiya and Hatate, coupled with no ACL distractions, should see them bounce back this season. I’m also really looking forward to seeing how Yasuto Wakizaka develops as I was impressed by him last year plus young Ao Tanaka will surely only get better, how long can they keep hold of him?
Predicted Starting XI:

4. Cerezo Osaka (5th)
Director: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Yamagata) / Kota Mizanuma (YFM)
Key Player: Hiroshi Kiyotake
Lowdown: Probably not the most popular prediction I could have made on a Gamba blog, but here we are. They have a manager who knows the type of player he needs and the style of football he wants to play, plus a front office that works in tandem with him (something we could learn from in Suita). Souza was an excellent player, but Lotina didn’t fancy him so he’s been and gone, replaced by his more conservative compatriot, Lucas Mineiro (on loan from Chapecoense). Other than that only Mizanuma (Marinos) has left from last year’s starting XI, though his replacement Tatsuhiro Sakamoto from Montedio Yamagata looks a good capture. It’ll be interesting to see how much game time young Jun Nishikawa gets and also how much Ken Tokura has left in the locker after suffering a serious injury in 2019.
Predicted Starting XI:
Okuno-Bruno Mendes

5. Gamba Osaka (7th)
Director: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd / 2nd full season)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Gen Shoji (Toulouse) / Hiroto Goya (Kashiwa)
Key Player: Takashi Usami
Lowdown: Last year I said we’d come 6th and we ended up 7th, but in reality I never envisaged we’d start as horribly as we did, nor for that matter did I think Usami, Ideguchi and Patric would return. The same XI that finished last year strongly are still here, the Usami-Ademison partnership is blossoming, Onose, Kurata and Ideguchi will provide goals from midfield and there are youngsters emerging. Gen Shoji’s late arrival from Toulouse would appear to be the icing on the cake and could pave the way for a genuine ACL push this time out. The back 3 of Miura, Shiji and Kim give us a trio of current internationals, almost unheard of in the modern JLeague era where most national team players ply their trade abroad. My only doubts are over whether or not the 3-5-2 system gets the best out of the current squad, it could be argued that 4-4-2 with Ideguchi and Yajima sitting in front of the defence may offer a more solid base to build from. Anyway, the signing of Shoji has me in upbeat mood, here’s hoping for an entire campaign spent in the right half of the table!
Predicted Starting XI:

6. FC Tokyo (2nd)
Director: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Shuto Abe (Meiji Univ.) / Oh Jae-suk (Gamba)
Key Player: Diego Oliveira
Lowdown: Ex-Gamba head-coach Kenta Hasegawa has done excellent things in the capital over the past 2 years, culminating in a best ever 2nd place J1 finish last year. This season’s crop features largely the same starting members (we all know how much Kenta likes his favourites) and they’ve been bolstered by the addition of 2 Brazilians, Leandro (Kashima, loan – why would you loan someone to a divisional rival?) and Adailton (Iwata). I think hell may freeze over before Hasegawa plays both of them, Diego Oliveira and Kensuke Nagai in the same line-up, but they should add depth to what is already an excellent midfield / attack. At the back, Joan Oumari (ex-Kobe and Tosu) plus Hotaka Nakamura (Meiji University) have come in, but they seem quite short of experienced backup there. Also in attack, Adailton is similar to Nagai, but an injury to Diego Oliveira would open the door for Tagawa, Hara or Yajima, none of whom played much in 2019 or have a great deal of top flight experience in general. They once again have an epic road trip (this time owing to the Olympics), having dealt with it reasonably well in 2019, can they repeat the trick this time round?
Predicted Starting XI:

7. Vissel Kobe (8th)
Director: Thorsten Fink (2nd / 1st full)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Douglas (Shimizu) / David Villa (retired)
Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen
Lowdown: Kobe continue to baffle fans and pundits alike. If column inches were a predictor of success then they’d romp J1 every year, but as it stands, in the last 5 seasons (it doesn’t get any better if you look further back), they’ve finished 12th, 7th, 9th, 10th and 8th…as solidly mid-table as you could possibly be. After winning the Emperor’s Cup on January 1st they’ll compete in the ACL for the first time in their history, but with Japanese Super Cup commitments they had a very, very short off-season. A conservative estimate might say that they’ll play around 45 games in all competitions this year, realistically if Iniesta and Vermaelen could play 25 each they’ll be doing well, how they replace each of them in the 20 or so games they don’t feature in will go a long way to determining their fate. Douglas looks like an excellent replacement for David Villa and Furuhashi and Fujimoto bring goals too. At the back, the additions of Kikuchi and Yamakawa show an intent to fix a leaky rearguard, though the error-prone Hiroki Iikura is still between the sticks. Honestly, 7th is a pure guess, they could be champions or they could finish 12th and neither would really surprise me.
Predicted Starting XI:

8. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (6th)
Director: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Leandro Pereira (Matsumoto – Loan Extension) / Sho Inagaki (Nagoya)
Key Player: Tsukasa Morishima
Lowdown: The money drawer appears to be empty in Hiroshima as there has been little in the way of transfer action this winter. There are, however, plenty of young players coming through, Osako, Araki (would like him at Gamba) and Morishima (3 goals, 7 assists in 24 games in 2019) all look good. Taishi and Hiroya Matsumoto plus Shunki Higashi look to be the next in line to make an impact on the first team. Brazilian midfielder Ezequiel is an intriguing signing from Botafogo while the extension of Leandro Pereira’s loan deal from Matsumoto should help to relieve the goal-scoring burden on Douglas Vieira (7 goals, 4 assists in 24 games in his first season of J1 football).
Predicted Starting XI:
Douglas Vieira

9. Kashiwa Reysol (J2 1st)
Director: Nelsinho (2nd / 8th in total)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Yuta Kamiya (Shonan) / So Nakagawa (Iwata)
Key Player: Cristiano
Lowdown: Last year’s J2 champions return to J1 after a year-long sabbatical and like Kobe, I’m really unsure where to place them. Cristiano, Olunga, Esaka, Segawa and Matheus Savio will score goals, so from that perspective, it’s largely irrelevant whether or not new boys Goya and Nakama turn out to be good signings or not. They’ve brought in a lot of J2 talent this winter, Yokohama FC right-back Kengo Kitazume and midfielder Yuta Kamiya (Shonan – on loan at Ehime in 2019) seem to be the pick of the bunch. My questions about Kashiwa are all at the back, the partnership of Yuji Takahashi and Takuma Ominami could be very solid or it could be an undisciplined car crash, this will largely determine whether Reysol end up in the ACL spots or mid-table.
Predicted Starting XI:


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