Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka Emperor’s Cup Final Mini Preview

Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
Emperor’s Cup Final
Japan National Stadium
Friday 1 January 2021 14:40

Hope it was a Merry Christmas for all who celebrated it! This is just a mini-preview ahead of Friday’s Emperor’s Cup Final and is intended to serve as a companion to the J-Talk Podcast that @frontalerabbit and myself joined Ben for on Tuesday.

Gamba sealed their place in the final by seeing off J2 Champions Tokushima Vortis 2-0 at Panasonic Stadium on Sunday. A scrappy effort from Patric early in the second-half and Yuya Fukuda’s fine strike just a minute after coming on as a substitute were enough for them to advance at the expense of Ricardo Rodriguez’s game side. Kosuke Onose (start) and Takashi Usami (bench) made returns to boost the morale of the Nerazzurri faithful ahead of the final in Tokyo.

Kawasaki defeated J3 outfit Blaublitz Akita 2-0 at Todoroki Stadium early on Sunday afternoon. Inevitably their opener came through the man, the myth, the legend that is Kaoru Mitoma in the 39th minute. Akita’s mean defence was only breached 18 times in 34 league matches this season, however, it was still surprising that the floodgates didn’t open in the second half, and Ao Tanaka’s free-kick 8 minutes from the end was the only additional goal. Still, a win is a win, and crucially Frontale welcomed back Ryota Oshima and Shintaro Kurumaya to leave them almost at full strength going into the final game of their campaign.

Head to Head

You can see a list of all the recent league meetings between these 2 in the table below, but in this week’s head-to-head I want to have a look at cup ties. Gamba defeated Kawasaki 1-0 in the final of the 2007 League Cup, the only evidence I can find of a one-off cup final played on neutral ground between both sides. Michihiro Yasuda, now of JEF United, scored the game’s only goal and helped himself to the MVP and New Hero awards for that year. Aside from that, the only other recent cup activity I could find was the two-legged League Cup semi-final in 2014 which Gamba won 5-4 on aggregate, triumphing 3-1 at home before going down 3-2 in Kanagawa. The Nerazzurri, of course, then went on to defeat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-2 in the final, the first trophy of their incredible treble winning season.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

There will definitely be no Ademilson for Gamba after the Brazilian had his contract with the club cancelled on Monday. It’s believed that the former Yokohama F.Marinos forward reached a legal settlement with the victim of his drink-driving incident. Yuji Ono (knee) is another who will play no part on Friday, while it’s extremely unlikely that either Yosuke Ideguchi or Gen Shoji will be fit after both sat out the semi-final win over Tokushima.

Kawasaki Frontale

Left-back Kyohei Noborizato (collarbone fracture) appears to be Frontale’s only absentee. Dynamic midfielder Ryota Oshima, left winger Tatsuya Hasegawa and full-back Shintaro Kurumaya have all missed chunks of time this season, but were in the squad for the win over Akita on Sunday.

Predicted Line Ups

Usami for Watanabe is likely to be the only change for the men in blue and black. Gamba’s #33 got much needed minutes against Vortis and Watanabe (probably about to play his final Gamba game) has made more of an impact from the bench this year. Elsewhere, although Yuya Fukuda impressed with a cameo in the last 10 minutes on Sunday, I don’t think he will make the starting eleven here and despite Yajima and Yamamoto being the central midfielders in the 5-0 mauling at Kawasaki in November and neither of them being particularly great ball winners, I believe Miyamoto will opt for this pair again with Okuno on the pine.

With most of the squad good to go, it’s difficult for kantoku Toru Oniki to know who to leave out. If Kurumaya has fully overcome his injury then he will surely take Hatate’s spot at left-back, otherwise the former Juntendo University man, more normally an attacking midfielder or winger, will have to put in a shift there once again. Up top, it’s a toss of a coin between Damião and Kobayashi, but Damião started both league games against Gamba this year so I’ve selected him. This will be the final ever match for Frontale legend Kengo Nakamura and, if he can make the squad, it could be sayonara for Manabu Saito too, as he looks set to join Nagoya Grampus this off-season.

Match Prediction

All logic points to a Frontale win, but this is a Gamba blog after all and I’ll say we’ll grab an early goal and do what we do best, hold on for dear life. Patric to be the hero once more….sorry Kengo you’ll have to make do with just the record breaking league campaign in final year, legend that you are.


Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka 25 November 2020 Match Preview

Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
J1 2020 Round 29
Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium
Wednesday 25 November 18:30

Last Time Out

Urawa Reds vs Gamba Osaka

Gamba came from behind to defeat arch-rivals Urawa on Sunday to keep upcoming opponents Kawasaki Frontale’s championship champagne on ice, at least for a few more days. An instinctive strike by talisman Takashi Usami and Ryu Takao’s first ever senior goal overturned Tomoaki Makino’s opener for Reds to help the Nerazzurri banish the memories of last week’s 4-0 humbling by Sendai.

Four changes were made to the Gamba starting eleven with the rested Kim Young-gwon, Kosuke Onose, Takashi Usami and Patric returning in place of the benched Shunya Suganuma, Kohei Okuno, Kazuma Watanabe and Shoji Toyama. The match officials were the star attraction of my first-half notes on a blustery afternoon at Saitama Stadium. Gamba had claims for a penalty ignored when the referee didn’t spot Makino’s handball from Takao’s cross, while Reds players were rightly furious that Kim Young-gwon was adjudged to have won the ball rather than taken out Shinzo Koroki on the edge of the penalty area when replays indicated otherwise. The most comical officiating came when Martinus tried to milk a foul on the right-side of his own box and fell over, however, no free-kick was given leaving the Curacaoan international on all fours shielding the ball (I’m sure he handled it somewhere in the process), when a Gamba player rightly flicked it out from under him he rolled around like he’d been shot in the stomach and eventually got the free-kick (which in fairness most referees would have given him for the first ‘foul’).

The opening stanza was scrappy and featured few clear cut openings. Gamba’s midfield, once again missing the services of Yosuke Ideguchi, lacked bite and there were too many soft challenges going in for my liking. Shinzo Koroki flicked Usami’s corner onto his own post for the visitors best chance of the half, the same player also had his own side’s best opportunity, but couldn’t get the ball past Masaaki Higashiguchi with a low shot. Kosuke Onose went off with a leg muscle injury in the 24th minute and Fujiharu had to get his leg strapped up in the second, before soldiering on for a few more minutes then being taken off to add to Gamba’s recent injury woes. Better news came in the form of youngsters getting a run out, the left-side combination of Fukuda and Kawasaki gave Nerazzurri fans a taste of the future. Indeed Gamba’s closing midfield featured 3 youngsters, Kawasaki (19), Okuno (20) and Toyama (18 – bizarrely playing right wing) who have spent most of this year with the U23 side in J3.

Kazuki Nagasawa rattled the bar for Reds early in the second half after a mistake reminiscent of Gamba’s defending against Urawa in the match in Suita, the surprisingly quiet Leonardo also clipped the outside of the post in a bright opening to the half by the home team. In the 62nd minute, Makino, a player, who despite my best efforts, I can’t bring myself to dislike, tapped home from close range after defensive partner Deng sprung the Nerazzurri’s offside trap and cushioned a header across goal, Miyamoto will definitely want to have another look at his side’s defending for that one. He’d have no such issues with Gamba’s response, as they seemed to be galvanised by going behind, though, in truth, the men in blue and black are always easier to watch when they aren’t winning. Usami got his first goal in 7 games with an excellent shot though a crowd of defenders and just as in the Sapporo game, as soon as he was subbed and relieved of set-piece duties, with the very next set-play Yuki Yamamoto stepped up with a deadly cross which, on this occasion, found former Kwansei Gakuin team-mate Ryu Takao for the winner. 2-1 Gamba, double digit away wins in 2020, unbeaten in 4 league games at Saitama Stadium, roll on Wednesday night.

Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka Match Lowdown

It’s the battle between 1st and 2nd at Todoroki Stadium this Wednesday with anything other than an away win leading to a deserved 3rd title in 4 years for Kawasaki. Victory for Gamba, statistically the best away side in the division, would keep their ultra slim championship hopes alive, though they would have to win their remaining 4 fixtures while Frontale somehow contrived to lose all of theirs. The first part of the equation is believable as the Nerazzurri have still to play, Tosu (h), Shonan (a), Yokohama FC (a) and Shimizu (h), however, it seems nigh on impossible that Kawasaki could lose to Shimizu (a), Tosu (a), Urawa (h) and Kashiwa (a).

Digging up stats on Kawasaki is relatively straightforward as they pretty much dominate every team category you can name. As they have been in record breaking form this season I’ll do my best to put these figures into historical context. With 23 wins from their 29 games played so far, Kawasaki are 5 ahead of Gamba (18) in that particular table and indeed, Nagoya (2010), Kashiwa (2011) and Hiroshima (2015) are the only sides to win as many games in an 18-team J1 season meaning that just a solitary victory in their final 5 matches not only gives Frontale this year’s J1 title, but also the record for most wins in a single campaign. In terms of defeats, the men from Kanagawa have been turned over just 3 times all year (losing twice in their past 4 games to bottom half opponents may be a slight cause for concern, though), Gamba again are second in that ranking with 7 defeats (how those home losses to Shonan and Sendai hurt now!) Frontale already hold the record for least defeats in an 18-team J1, losing just 4 times en route to their first title back in 2017, if they can avoid another loss in their upcoming 5 fixtures then they will better that total.

In terms of goals for and against, Kawasaki are once again number one in each of these categories. They’ve scored 74 times in 29 matches (2.55 per game), 6 more than 2nd ranked Yokohama F.Marinos, but with 4 fewer games played and a whopping 33 more than Gamba. Their goal difference stands at an astonishing +49, to give that some context, Gamba have found the back of the net just 41 times all season. Historically, only Frontale, 84 in 2006, and Gamba, 82 in 2005, 80 in 2006 and 78 in 2011 have mustered more than that in an 18-team top flight. Merely maintaining their current goalscoring ratio will see them to 86 strikes for the year and yet another record. Goals conceded is one area where they could conceivably be overtaken as they’ve let in 25, just 3 fewer than Nagoya with 1 game less played.

Gamba actually have a slightly better away record than Kawasaki, so a big part of Frontale’s lead has been built on the back of excellent home performances. Last season, getting results in front of their own supporters was their achilles heal as they could win only 5 of 17 home fixtures and had a disappointing 9 draws. This time round only Tosu (a pre-Covid 0-0) and Sapporo (2-0) have left Kawasaki with anything other than a defeat and Frontale are averaging a 2.86-0.93 scoreline in their own backyard.

I have 5 Kawasaki players definitely in my J1 team of the year (Yamane, Taniguchi, Jesiel, Oshima and Mitoma) as well as one probable (Ienaga – there is tough competition for those wing / shadow positions – Mateus, Kiyotake, Esaka, Furuhashi, Sakamoto, to name a few standout performers) in addition to 2 from Gamba (Higashiguchi and Ideguchi), so this match will give fans an excellent opportunity to see a number of J1’s top performers on the field together. Frontale legend Kengo Nakamura will retire at the end of this campaign at the age of 40 and it will be interesting to see in what direction current kantoku Toru Oniki takes his side after this ground-breaking year. Asian Champions League success is surely the most obvious target after being the dominant force in Japan in recent years, though both Kawasaki and Gamba must have a bit of trepidation over what lies in store having seen what’s happened to FC Tokyo, Marinos and Kobe this year. Oniki’s main weak point seems to be getting the best out of the foreign players at his disposal and I wonder if he could be a potential future Japan national team head-coach as he wouldn’t have to deal with that issue. Elsewhere, mercurial winger Kaoru Mitoma seems set for a move to Europe over the winter and one of the best things about JLeague, for me, is that Frontale aren’t going to go out and buy Olunga, Ideguchi, Mateus and Kiyotake in the off-season to make themselves much stronger, so the chasing pack will feel they have, at least, some chance of catching up in the coming years.

This is a Gamba blog, of course, so let’s have a brief look at them now. Last Sunday’s win took them onto 33 away points for the year (1 more than Frontale), their best performance since returning to J1 in 2014, The Nerazzurri are averaging a 1.64-0.93 scoreline on the road (Gamba’s away defensive performance and Kawasaki’s home record are identical so we may be in for a low scoring game here) and the come from behind display at Urawa was the second time they’ve overturned a deficit to win away in 2020 (Sendai 4-1 was the other). Indeed they’ve only trailed in 4 of their 14 road games this season, an excellent display all round. It has been a real team-effort this season from Gamba, nowhere more so than in attack where Usami notched his 6th goal of the year against Reds pulling him level with fellow strikers, Ademilson, Patric and Watanabe, that quartet’s combined total stands at 24, exactly equal to J1’s top marksman Michael Olunga. Perhaps the absence of Yosuke Ideguchi is the only one that Gamba don’t have any form of solution for as he is so comfortably head and shoulders above everyone else in that department. However, the Nerazzurri’s ability to go on a run of only 1 defeat in 14 matches while blooding a number of youngsters to cover injuries all over the field surely bodes well for the coming years.

Head to Head

Frontale edged out Gamba 1-0 in the battle between 1st and 2nd at Panasonic Stadium back on August 1st, a match in which both sets of players showed each other a great deal of respect. There have only been 4 goals in the 3 previous fixtures between these two at Todoroki Stadium, however, prior to that there was a bizarre 5-3 Frontale win in 2015 that, for some reason, I have no recollection of. All Gamba supporters will remember the 2016 game well though, as the Nerazzurri overcame an early 2-0 deficit to stun their hosts with 3 goals in 11 second-half minutes to claim ACL qualification on the final day of the season.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

The injuries have been piling up for Gamba in recent weeks with captain Genta Miura’s 45 minute run out against Iwate Grulla Morioka in J3 on Sunday the only piece of positive news from the camp. As mentioned above, both Kosuke Onose and Hiroki Fujiharu had to leave the field with leg muscle injuries on Sunday putting huge question marks over their participation in this clash. Yuji Ono (knee surgery – season) and Ademilson (club suspension) are definitely out while there has been no information regarding star midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi’s continued absence. Fujiharu (if fit) and stand-in skipper Shu Kurata will play their last game as 31 year-olds here with Kurata (Thusday) and Fujiharu (Saturday) both approaching their 32nd birthdays.

Kawasaki Frontale

Frontale captain Shogo Taniguchi will miss this game through suspension after his red card against Oita on Saturday, however, regular centre-back partner Jesiel returns after sitting that one out due to the accumulation of yellow cards. My source inside the Frontale camp tells me that ex-Cerezo utility player Kazuya Yamamura picked up a knock in the 1-1 draw with Kashima on November 14th and is a doubt for Wednesday night. Former Gamba man Akihiro Ienaga and backup midfielder Hokuto Shimoda have been absent from the matchday squad for the past 2 games, while promising young forward Taisei Miyashiro hasn’t featured in the last 3 outings, no injury has been reported in any of these cases. Experienced South Korean international stopper Jung Sung-ryong will make his 150th Kawasaki and J1 appearance in this match.

Predicted Line Ups

For the lineup below, I’ve assumed that Fujiharu, Onose and Ideguchi will all be missing. However, if Ideguchi or Onose are fit enough to play, then I expect them to do so, Fukuda will probably start ahead of Fujiharu regardless, with the latter on the bench if available. Genta Miura should be ready to go for this one, but I believe Miyamoto will stick with Kim and Shoji for consistency before bringing in Miura for Kim against Tosu on Sunday. In the midfield, I’ve selected Shuhei Kawasaki to make his first J1 start against his namesake team with Shu Kurata switching to the right flank. An alternative would be, Yajima on the right, Kurata on the left and Yamamoto and Okuno in the middle, Up front, Patric had a physical 90 minute battle with Thomas Deng on Sunday so could start this one on the pine with Watanabe coming in alongside Usami.

Jesiel will likely return from his ban in a straight switch at centre-back for regular captain Taniguchi who will turn his armband over to Ryota Oshima as he sits this one out suspended. Defensively Frontale don’t have many options other than the players I’ve selected, but further forward they have some amazing depth. Kengo Nakamura or Yasuto Wakizaka could fill one of the more advanced midfield roles while I’ve selected the same front 3 as started in the 1-0 win at Panasonic Stadium. Kobayashi for Leandro Damiao is one obvious switch, Mitoma, Hasegawa and also Manabu Saito, who didn’t make my matchday squad, are alternatives down the flanks.

Match Prediction

A lot riding on this one, anything other than a defeat sees Kawasaki crowned champions. Gamba know that a Frontale title win is inevitable, but will do their utmost to stop it happening in this encounter. I don’t think there will be many goals, I could see a 1-0 in either direction. In the end though, I’ll call it as a 1-1 draw.

sport Uncategorized

Kawasaki Frontale Match Preview 1/8/20

Gamba Osaka vs Kawasaki Frontale
J1 2020 Round 8
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Saturday 1 August 19:00 (JST)

Round 8 of J1 2020 brings us first versus second as table-topping Kawasaki Frontale visit Panasonic Stadium. It’s also another special edition of my match preview as I’m joined by Neil (@frontalerabbit on Twitter) from the excellent to look ahead to this mouthwatering clash. As always comments and feedback are welcomed, please let me know where you are reading this and what changes or improvements you’d like to see.

Last Time Out

Gamba earned their fourth win on the bounce with a hard-fought 2-0 victory at Vissel Kobe last Sunday. This was the third match in eight days for both sides, however, personnel changes were kept to a minimum and that contributed to a game often played at walking pace with the feel of the 5th day of a cricket test match where the two teams are happy to play for a draw.

The men from Suita made two changes to the starting eleven from the previous game against Hiroshima. Yuji Ono came in for Shu Kurata in a rotational move while Shinya Yajima replaced Yasuhito Endo at the base of the midfield after he was rested in midweek. There was still no place in the squad for either Kosuke Onose or Ademilson though it’s still unclear if they are injured or just being wrapped in cotton wool. Former U23 captain Riku Matsuda (not to be confused with Cerezo’s right-back with the same name) made his first appearance in J1 from the bench, replacing Ryu Takao in the 75th minute and picked up his first yellow card less than a minute later after flattening Andres Iniesta.

Gamba started the brighter of the two teams, finding ample space to move the ball around on a slippy surface which caused grip problems for both sides. Takashi Usami brought out a decent save from Hiroki Iikura in the 4th minute as the veteran stopper got fingertips to a shot from the edge of the area and turned it round the post. At the resulting corner Kim Young-gwon headed just wide of Iikura’s far post from an almost identical position that Genta Miura scored against Sanfrecce. However, as the half wore on Vissel, inspired by captain Iniesta in the middle of the park, dominated possession. Chances for the home side were few and far between though, Kyogo Furuhashi having their best moment, turning Takao at the corner of the box before firing in a decent effort that Masaaki Higashiguchi helped wide for a corner.

The second half started slowly and it seemed both teams would happily take 0-0, but things changed in the 62nd minute as Takao’s drilled cross-field ball caused confusion in the new-look Kobe backline. Thomas Vermaelen, making his first J1 start in 2020, played two Gamba players onside in the penalty area, however right-back So Fujitani, himself starting for only the second time, didn’t track back which allowed Yuji Ono to ghost in unnoticed. The former Tosu man scuffed his shot into the ground but it looped up and over Iikura, 1-0 Gamba and Ono’s final contribution of the match before being immediately replaced by Kurata.

A tired Kobe then proceeded to take the game to Gamba, having their best spell between the 73rd and 84th minutes. In that period, Junya Tanaka, one of only two subs used, turned on the edge of the box and fired straight at Higashiguchi, while Furuhashi was denied by a great save by Higashiguchi following nice set-up play by Iniesta, the left-winger then had his header parried by Gamba’s number 1 who was in unbeatable form.

Vissel had their failure to net an equaliser punished in the most dramatic way possible. Four minutes from the end of normal time neat build-up play down the left involving Kazuma Watanabe and Hiroki Fujiharu culminated with an inside pass from Yosuke Ideguchi to Usami, Gamba’s talisman then produced a goal of the season contender from fully 30 metres out that Iikura could only help on its way to the top corner. Usami the Kobe Killer strikes again and the Nerrazzuri took the short ride back to Osaka with all three points.

Vissel Kobe 0-2 Gamba Osaka

Kawasaki remained top after making slightly heavy weather of their 3-1 home victory over Shonan Bellmare. Frontale outshot their visitors 16 to 1 in the first half and also enjoyed 70% of the possession, but despite spending long periods camped in Bellmare’s defensive third, Yu Kobayashi’s header which was stopped by Gamba loanee Kosei Tani (possibly behind the line) was the closest they came. Goalless at the break.

Shots continued to rain down on the Shonan goal at the start of the second half with, Reo Hatate, Hidemasa Morita, Yasuto Wakizaka and Kobayashi all recording efforts. However, in classic underdog style, Bellmare sucker punched their Kanagawa neighbours with a beautiful goal. Two half-time replacements, Shota Kobayashi and Norwegian international Tarik combined with the former’s cross from the right wing scissor kicked home from the penalty spot by the latter. 1-0 Shonan, game on.

Predictably Kawasaki’s response was rapid and it owed more than a little to Bellmare’s more expansive play in the second half. Following the Hiratsuka side’s first corner of the match, Frontale were able to counter just four minutes after going behind. Ryota Oshima, who’d come on just after Tarik’s opener raced away and he played in former Bellmare defender Miki Yamane who shot past Tani for his second goal in as many games.

After that it was all one way traffic and the result rarely looked in doubt. Twelve minutes from time, right centre-back Hirokazu Ishihara miscontrolled the ball which allowed another second half change, Kaoru Mitoma to rob him. The left winger then cut inside and unleashed a fine shot low to Tani’s right meaning he, like Tarik before him, could celebrate his first goal in J1. Ten minutes later Kawasaki finished things off as yet another substitute, highly-touted midfielder Ao Tanaka won the ball aggressively, played a neat one-two with fellow second half replacement Taisei Miyashiro and then buried a shot past the unfortunate Tani. 3-1 Frontale at the finish.

Kawasaki Frontale 3-1 Shonan Bellmare

Tactical Notes

I don’t expect any big tactical changes from Gamba this week despite facing the league’s strongest team. The next two midweeks see Levain Cup action meaning that the strongest eleven will start in the league while youngsters and reserves can be deployed in the cup. This will help with energy levels which were clearly depleted against Kobe last Sunday.

Gamba can be happy that despite the absence of three first choice players, Gen Shoji, Kosuke Onose and Ademilson, in recent games, their replacements, Ryu Takao, Yuya Fukuda and Kazuma Watanabe have all stood up and provided high-quality alternatives. Additionally being able to rotate Shu Kurata and Yuji Ono in the advanced left midfield position with no drop off in performance regardless of who plays is what every manager dreams of. Patric is still doing a good job in his ‘closing pitcher’ role of holding the ball up at the end of games and indeed nearly got himself on the scoresheet at Noevir Stadium.

For this week’s visitors it has been much tougher trying to find chinks in their armour, so I’ll spend most of this tactical notes section waxing lyrical over their strengths. Head coach Toru Oniki, who usually at least starts the season in @frontalerabbit’s good books, has switched his set-up from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 partly in response to the success achieved by their Kanagawa rivals Yokohama F.Marinos last year. Players in all positions have high levels of technical ability allowing them to dictate the pace and direction of a game for long periods. Their central midfield trio takes the form of an inverted triangle in the exact same shape as Gamba and is made up of two orthodox central midfielders and one attacking midfielder / converted winger. This area of the field has seen the heaviest rotation in 2020, owing largely to the amount of quality players who can perform in the Frontale engine room.

Kawasaki’s midfield set-up is designed to get the ball into wide areas quickly, enabling them to engineer two on one situations against opposition full-backs. Once again they have a number of options for these positions on the wings, ex-Gamba prodigy Akihiro Ienaga, J1 MVP in 2018 is still pulling the strings down the right at the age of 34 while Tatsuya Hasegawa on the left flank was in great form before picking up a knock which caused him to miss the last couple of games. Youngsters Kaoru Mitoma, Reo Hatate and Taisei Miyashiro as well as the vastly experienced Manabu Saito are alternatives, however, for this top of the table bout I’d expect the first choices to start, if available.

Finally, to Frontale’s weak points, and there aren’t many. They seem to have a small teething problem with the inverted midfield triangle, one that Gamba also faced and now seem to have rectified. At points early in the first half of last week’s game, Hidemasa Morita, in the midfield anchor position was isolated from his more advanced partners, Hokuto Shimoda and Yasuto Wakizaka, this could have allowed a stronger side than Shonan to take advantage and run directly at Kawasaki’s centre backs. Gamba’s high press should hopefully be more adept than Bellmare’s at pressuring the Frontale defenders into mistakes, making interceptions and then working overlaps and two-on-one advantages.

The only other cause for optimism I could see when looking to exploit Frontale flaws was in their wide defensive areas. Shonan did have limited success in attacking left-back Kyohei Noborizato and indeed their goal was created from his defensive zone. Wakizaka in midfield and whoever plays on either wing are unlikely to provide much defensive cover, I don’t think Ienaga does defence, which can allow Gamba’s players the opportunity to get at isolated Kawasaki full-backs if they are patient and choose their passes carefully. On the right side Miki Yamane has had a flying start to the season, but I’d expect to see him do far more defending at Panasonic Stadium than he did against Shonan and it’ll be interesting to see how strongly he performs then.

Statistical Noise

I hope to expand this section more as the season progresses and we get more data points, so this week’s entry will be a little short. Please let me know what you think.

Gamba Osaka

*Gamba and good start to the season are not words often found in the same sentence, after 7 games this year the Nerrazzuri have 16 points, compared with just 6 points at the same stage in 2019 and 4 the year before.
*Gamba have now won their last four matches in-a-row, the first time they’ve achieved that since the end of 2018 when of course they went on their incredible 9 match winning streak from September 1st (2-0 at home to Kawasaki) to November 24th against V-Varen Nagasaki.
*Including last season, Gamba now have 8 wins from their last 10 J1 games with 1 draw and a solitary defeat to Cerezo. They’ve scored 21 and conceded 10 in that time.
*Improved away form has been a key factor in Gamba’s strong start to this season. They picked up just 5 wins on the road in 2019 and a mere 20 points from 17 games. 2020 has seen them win 3 out of 4 and they’ve already got halfway to matching last season’s away points total.

Kawasaki Frontale

*Frontale are the league’s top scorers with 20 strikes in 7 games, this puts them 2 ahead of Kashiwa Reysol and an incredible 8 more than joint third placed Gamba.
*Statistically the best away side in J1 last season, Kawasaki have started 2020 with a bang too, winning all 3 road games and scoring at least 3 times in each match. Their last away league defeat came against Cerezo Osaka on September 1st last year, a 2-1 reverse.
*Frontale forward Yu Kobayashi has scored 4 goals so far this campaign in just 154 on-field minutes, a goal every 38.5 minutes, Gamba better watch out on Saturday.
*Kawasaki have won just once away to Gamba since the men from Suita were promoted back to J1 in 2014, a 1-0 triumph on their first visit to Panasonic Stadium in 2016. Other than that Gamba have won twice (2014 and 2018) while there have been 3 draws.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Gen Shoji is once again a doubt and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets a run out in either of the upcoming Levain Cup games. Reserve goalie Jun Ichimori is still on the treatment table and is due back in September, while there has been no word on the status of Kosuke Onose or Ademilson after both were omitted from the squad for the Hiroshima and Kobe games, though according to Instagram, Ade is training with the first-team. Riku Matsuda’s inclusion against Vissel also raises the question of whether the more experienced Shunya Suganuma and Ryo Shinzato are injured or has Matsuda merely usurped them in the pecking order?

Kawasaki Frontale

Club legend Kengo Nakamura is back in training after injuring his knee at the end of 2019, but is unlikely to be risked yet, while @frontalerabbit reports that left-winger Tatsuya Hasegawa, who hasn’t played since leaving the field in the first half of the game against Vegalta Sendai on July 22nd, is out for a further 4 weeks. Elsewhere new Brazilian right-back Diogo Mateus hasn’t been spotted in the matchday squad since his arrival, though I’m putting that down to non-selection rather than injury.

Know Your OpponentKawasaki Frontale

Thanks again to Neil for his wonderful rundown of the likely Kawasaki starting lineup for Saturday’s game which you can read below. If you haven’t already please give him a follow on Twitter and check out his blog at

GK 1. Sung-Ryong JUNG
35 year old keeper who joined us in 2016 from Suwon in his native Korea. Has pretty much been first choice since then but slightly fell out of favour late on last season. Not sure why though as he’s always pretty steady and he played an important part in us plugging our leaky defence to allow us to get our two league titles.

RB 13. YAMANE Miki
Signed from Shonan this year to hopefully fill what has been a dodgy position for us since Elsinho left. Looks to enjoy attacking and made a great assist for Damiao’s goal against FC Tokyo and scored a couple of nice goals already. Perhaps prone to the occasional defensive error, but is still settling in and if he’s busting forward as he tends to, the opposition have probably got to worry more about him gong forward than we might about his defending.

Captain and mainstay at the back. Joined us straight from Tsukuba University. Big favourite of Oniki and seems to be first pick on the team sheet. Occasionally makes horrific blunders but aside from those is generally quite steady and reliable. One of our biggest threats from corners.

Joined at the start of last season after playing with a few different Brazilian clubs and had a season where he drifted in and out of the starting line up in spite of him showing that he is probably our best defender. Picked up a slight injury earlier in the season but is strong, skillful and seems to be a real cut above when he’s playing at his best. One of only three centre backs in the whole squad!

Osaka born but has been with us since high school. Left-sided player who can play on the left wing too and has at times filled in at right back. Always full on energy and running. Used to play further forward but now seems to be settled at left back and is currently keeping former Japan national team member Kurumaya on the bench. 

Only 21 but was clearly last season’s player of the year and a fan favourite as he’s a Frontale youth team product. Recently has been playing the anchor role in front of the defence but can play anywhere you ask him to in the middle. Great passer and tackler and shooter when he ventures further forward. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone tries to buy him from us. Very important player for us.

MF 10. OSHIMA Ryota
Joined us from high school and pulls the strings in midfield for us. Slightly injury prone but makes a huge difference when he’s fit and in the team. Has a great shot from outside the box and is much stronger on the ball than you’d think from looking at the size of him. Passing and tackling maestro. Often targeted by the opposition who look to kick him out of the game but has enough guile to skip round attempted fouls. Makes everything tick for us.

MF 28. WAKIZAKA Yasuto
Former Frontale youth player who joined us from his university team in 2018. Started to make appearances last season but has really cemented himself as a starter this year. Perhaps the most attacking of our three midfielders and likes to run at the box and shoot. Takes set pieces too. Tends to get substituted early on in the second half. Is still developing but looks like he’ll be a great player in the future.

FW 41. IENAGA Akihiro
Came to us from Omiya but his career has taken him from Gamba Osaka Youth to us via spells in Spain and Korea. Hugely important for us going forward. Nominally plays on the right but is left footed and tends to drift where he wants. Has a great shot on him and very skillful. 34 years old now but probably playing some of his best football. Was J League MVP in 2018 and thoroughly deserved it.

Transferred to us last year from Santos FC in Brazil. Presumably on big money and was our marquee signing. Didn’t really get much of a chance to settle in last year as he was in and out of the team in spite of having a decent scoring record. Oniki struggled to get him and Kobayashi to play well together and seems to have now given up on that idea. Kobayashi got the nod over him more often than not last year. Seems to have been unlucky with us so far and perhaps still hasn’t got to grips with the J League. 9 goals in 23 appearances last year though and has three already this year. Totally addicted to trying to score overhead kicks.

FW 18. MITOMA Kaoru 
Another Frontale youth team product. Has appeared for the national U23 team quite a few times and looked like he might be a possible star of the 2020 Olympics but we all know how that has turned out. Seems unstoppable when on the ball recently. Drives at defenders and seems to have the ball glued to his feet somehow. Very direct and likes to shoot. Would love to see him start, but then we wouldn’t be able to use him as an always game-changing super sub.

Possibly in place of Noborizato
DF 7. KURUMAYA Shintaro
Left back who also joined us directly from Tsukuba University but is likely to start at centre back as we have hardly any centre backs in our squad for some reason. Not 100% convinced by him playing there and is much betting roving forward with the ball. Can still do a job though. 

Toss up whether it is him or LEANDRO DAMIAO
Fan favourite and one club man. League MVP in 2017. Hasn’t quite set the world alight so much since then but has started this season pretty strong, especially when coming off the bench scoring six goals so far. Often needs quite a few chances to find his range, particularly if he starts the game for some reason. Has an absolutely lovely turn on him and will do something sublimely skillful and then pass the ball to the keeper. Or absolutely bury it depending on how he’s playing. This year it seems that whichever striker starts struggles and the sub does the business which makes it a bit tricky to predict whether Damiao or Kobayashi will get the nod up front. 

Possibly in place of Mitoma
Another young rising star with U23 team appearances and plenty of goals. Still looks a bit raw when he plays for us but another player who suits our new attacking style with his resolute desire to head for the goal whenever he has the ball. Nominally a striker but seems to be another who falls into the category of quite short attacking wide player who gets forward quite often. Feel that once he gets his first goal his confidence will bloom. For some reason got the nod over Mitoma to take Hasegawa’s place in the last starting line up, so maybe Oniki knows something we don’t. Has played as a sub on the right too though, so he has the potential to cover for a few players.

Predicted Lineups

Match Prediction

A real tough one this week with J1’s best going head to head and no midweek games to distract them. Once again I’d love to say 2-1 Gamba, but I’ll stick with my tried and tested 1-1 prediction and hope that I’m wrong again!

sport Uncategorized

J1 Recap June 2020

With the JLeague’s return almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take a refresher course on what’s been happening at each club over the previous few months.

Back in February I published a 2-part J1 preview, this article is intended to be a companion to that, so I’d like to take this chance to point you in the direction of those 2 previews (my most popular articles to date) if you’re in search of more reading material.

*All clubs are listed in the order they finished the 2019 season.

Yokohama F.Marinos

2019: 1st
Kantoku: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Marinos averaged exactly 2 goals per game in J1 last year (68 goals in 34 games)

Last season’s champions enjoyed a mixed start to 2020, recording impressive wins away to Jeonbuk (2-1) and home to Sydney FC (4-0) in the Asian Champions League. Domestically things weren’t so bright as they lost to Kobe in an infamously bad penalty shoot-out in the Super Cup before being beaten 2-1 on their own patch by Gamba in the first round of J1.

Squad Update:
Former captain Jun Amano (28 years old) has returned from a year-long loan at Belgian side Sporting Lokeren. Amano, with over 100 games already under his belt for Marinos will be re-united with Lokeren team-mate, former Renofa Yamaguchi and Kashiwa Reysol full-back, Ryota Koike, who has joined the champions on a permanent basis. Experienced Avispa Fukuoka centre-back Yuki Saneto has also moved east to Kanagawa to provide cover for the injured Thiago Martins. Youth team forward Takumi Tsukui has been promoted to the top team, while Kokoku High School trio, Shunsuke Hirai (DF), Ryunosuke Kabayama (MF) and Tomoki Tagawa (GK), have been registered on designated special player contracts ahead of full-time moves in 2021.
Despite ‘keeper Park Il-gyu being ruled out for the first 2 months of the re-start, the current squad looks stronger than last year and with no ACL return on the immediate horizon they should be there or thereabouts come the end of season.

Week 1:
vs Gamba Osaka (h) 1-2

FC Tokyo

2019: 2nd
Kantoku: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd year)
Quick Stat: FC Tokyo’s average attendance of 31,540 in 2019 was the highest in the club’s history.

Kenta Hasegawa’s men kicked off their year with a 2-0 triumph over Ceres from the Philippines in torrential rain to earn a spot in the Asian Champions League group stage. They backed that up with an impressive 1-1 draw at Ulsan before edging out Perth Glory 1-0 at home. Then, the newly formed Brazilian front trio of Diego Oliveira, Leandro and Adailton all scored late on to inspire them to a 3-1 win at Shimizu S-Pulse in round 1 of J1 2020.

Squad Update:
Korean winger Na Sang-ho’s loan departure for Seongnam FC in his homeland is the biggest piece of transfer news to come out of Ajinomoto Stadium during the break. The highly-touted 23 year-old had struggled to make an impression since his move from Gwangju at the beginning of last season so this wasn’t a major shock.
The other major story to report is that the club have scrapped their J3 Under-23 side citing a lack of available stadia, this meant that their one lockdown signing, 20 year-old Thai midfielder Chayathorn Tapsuvanavon, who joined on loan from Bangkok United at the start of March, returned to Thailand in late June having seen no competitive action.

Week 1:
vs Shimizu S-Pulse (a) 3-1

Kashima Antlers

2019: 3rd
Kantoku: Zago (new)
Quick Stat: Kashima are the most successful team in J1 history with 8 league titles.

After losing in the final of the Emperor’s Cup to Vissel Kobe on January 1st, perennial Japanese giants Kashima then replaced outgoing coach Go Oiwa with Brazilian Zago and made a host of new signings. The bedding in period was not smooth and the men from Ibaraki found themselves surprisingly eliminated in the Asian Champions League qualifiers just 4 weeks later, losing 1-0 at home to Melbourne Victory. They followed this up with 2 more defeats, 1-0 away to Nagoya in the Levain Cup and 3-0 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in round 1 of J1. 3 games, 3 defeats, 0 goals scored, it was a nightmare start for Zago. Everyone at the Kashima Soccer Stadium will be hoping that the enforced shutdown has given him precious time to get his message across.

Squad Update:
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that 11 of their 31 squad members are new recruits for 2020, there have been no additional signings during the lockdown. The loss of Brazilian marksman Serginho to the Chinese second division (wonder if he’s having any regrets now) was a bitter blow for Kashima and how well his countrymen, Juan Alano (Internacional) and Everaldo (Queretaro, Mexico) settle in will be of utmost importance. Defender Bueno, who I suggested could be a weak link at the back in my February preview, has been loaned to Atletico Mineiro in his homeland.
With an eye on the future, Antlers announced in this month that Meiji University duo, Tomoki Hayakawa (GK) and Keigo Tsunemoto (DF) as well as Osaka Taiiku University defender Naoki Hayashi will join the club from next year.

Week 1:
vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (a) 0-3

Kawasaki Frontale

2019: 4th
Kantoku: Toru Oniki (4th year)
Quick Stat: Kawasaki had the best away record in J1 last year, taking 36 points from 17 games.

Champions in 2017 and 2018, Kawasaki endured an indifferent 2019, missing out on Asian Champions League qualification, but managing to lift the Levain Cup following a penalty shoot-out win over Sapporo. This year promises to see a changing of the guard with a more youthful looking squad attempting to regain the Kanagawa bragging rights from neighbouring Yokohama F.Marinos. They kicked off 2020 with a bang, thumping S-Pulse 5-1 at Todoroki Stadium in the League Cup, but dropped the baton the following week in their League opener, drawing 0-0 at home to a Sagan Tosu side predicted by many to finish bottom of J1.

Squad Update:
Their only transfer of the lockdown was to sell backup ‘keeper Hiroki Mawatari to Fagiano Okayama, which brings them down to a more respectable 4 senior goalkeepers in their squad, while Kento Tachibanada a midfielder from Toin Yokohama University (my old workplace) was announced as a signing for next season. Elsewhere, the break will presumably have given new university recruits, Zain Issaka (another of the Toin OB network that also includes Miki Yamane), Kaoru Mitoma (Tsukuba), Kaito Kamiya (Tokai Gakuen) and Reo Hatate (Juntendo) time to adjust to life as a pro, Frontale supporters will be hoping these guys will form the backbone of the side for the coming years.

Week 1:
vs Sagan Tosu (h) 0-0

Cerezo Osaka

2019: 5th
Kantoku: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Cerezo had the best defensive record in J1 in 2019, conceding a mere 25 in 34 games (0.7 per game), they were also tied with Kashima for most clean sheets kept (15).

Under the tutelage of wily head-coach Miguel Angel Lotina, Cerezo played an often quite dull but extremely effective brand of football last time out. Built on a rock-solid defence which conceded just 25 goals, they were able to achieve the 6th top 5 finish in their history. All the main protagonists in last season’s defensive masterclass are still in place and they started 2020 in strong fashion, smashing J2 side Matsumoto 4-1 at Nagai Stadium in the League Cup and following that up with a 1-0 opening day League win over Oita Trinita at the same venue.

Squad Update:
Young forward Mizuki Ando’s loan move to Machida Zelvia was their only lockdown transfer activity, he followed another young striker, Hiroto Yamada (Sendai), on the loan trail, the latter leaving in early February. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Mineiro joined on loan from Chapecoense just before the season started to replace his compatriot Souza and made 2 substitute appearances before the COVID-19 enforced break. From the winter recruits, wide-man Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Montedio Yamagata) and Japan Under-17 star, Jun Nishikawa (Toko Gakuen High School) will have a fair bit of expectation riding on their shoulders when the campaign resumes.

Week 1:
vs Oita Trinita (h) 1-0

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

2019: 6th
Kantoku: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Sanfrecce scored over 20% of their goals last year in just 2 games vs Vissel Kobe (6-2 home and 4-2 away)

After a roller-coaster 2018, Sanfrecce had a much more stable campaign in 2019, finishing a comfortable 6th in J1 as well as progressing from the Asian Champions League group stages before being bettered by Kashima. They had a pretty quiet off-season, but a number of younger talents are emerging, most notably assist-king, Tsukasa Morishima, an exciting attacking-midfielder. Buoyed by the news that plans to build a new stadium in downtown Hiroshima are afoot, Sanfrecce started 2020 in dominant fashion, seeing off J1 new boys Yokohama FC away in the League Cup before dismantling the newly assembled Kashima Antlers 3-0 at Edion Stadium in round 1 of J1. They currently top the standings, albeit after only one game week.

Squad Update:
There are no new transfers to report, although since my original preview was written, Ritsumeikan University midfielder Tomoya Fujii was signed on a pre-contract for 2021 and registered as a designated special player for 2020, he was on the bench for both games so far this year, playing once against Yokohama FC. Extending the loan deals of Brazilian duo Leandro Pereira and Rhayner was probably Hiroshima’s best work last winter, their compatriot, attacking midfielder Ezequiel, also joined on loan from Botafogo, while Yuya Asano (younger brother of Takuma) came in from Mito HollyHock, though the jury is very much still out on whether he’ll bring as much to the team as his elder sibling.

Week 1:
vs Kashima Antlers (h) 3-0

Gamba Osaka

2019: 7th
Kantoku: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Yasuhito Endo will become the most experienced player in J1 history the next time he takes to the field. He’s currently tied on 631 appearances with legendary Nagoya ‘keeper Seigo Narazaki.

Gamba had a nightmare start to 2019 (as they did the year before), however, owing to a change in strategy – playing with 3 centre-backs, as well a change in philosophy – disbanding the ageing group of heroes from the treble winning 2014 squad and supplementing the new young guns with returning heroes like Ideguchi and Usami, Gamba were able to haul themselves up to an ultimately respectable 7th place. This year started with a 1-0 home reverse to Kashiwa Reysol in the League Cup which was eerily similar to some games from early on in the past 2 campaigns. They were able to make it count when it really mattered this time though, and produced the performance of round 1 of J1 2020, turning over defending champions Yokohama F.Marinos 2-1 at Nissan Stadium, Kurata and Yajima helping themselves to a goal and an assist each.

Squad Update:
Vegalta Sendai backup ‘keeper Lee Yunoh was brought in on loan at the beginning of March to take the place of another loanee, Haruki Saruta (Kashiwa), in the U-23 squad after Saruta suffered a knee injury in training. Meiji University centre-back Yota Sato signed a pre-contract for 2021 and has been registered as a designated special player this year. Additionally, Japanese international centre-back, Gen Shoji, joined on a bumper deal from French side Toulouse last winter, however, due to injury he was unable to play in the 2 games prior to the shutdown. Gamba fans will look forward to seeing him work in tandem with Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon at the back.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama F.Marinos (a) 2-1

Vissel Kobe

2019: 8th
Kantoku: Thorsten Fink (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kobe’s games last season produced a total of 120 goals (3.6 per game), a league high.

The Rakuten money finally seemed to pay off for Kobe as they lifted their first ever piece of silverware, the Emperor’s Cup, after a 2-0 win over Kashima at the new National Stadium in Tokyo on New Year’s Day. Like buses, their second trophy came soon after as they saw off J1 Champions Yokohama F.Marinos in the Super Cup in February.
A team which scored plenty and conceded loads gradually became more disciplined under German coach Thorsten Fink in the second half of last year and a more slimline squad started 2020 well. Their first ever Asian Champions League campaign began with a 5-1 trouncing of Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim and continued with a hugely impressive 1-0 win away to Suwon in Korea. In J1 they had to accept a share of the spoils when they met Yokohama FC in round 1 in a game played under bizarre circumstances with supporters allowed into the stadium, but told not to cheer.

Squad Update:
No ins or outs have been recorded during the league’s enforced absence which gives us a chance to look at their business from last winter. Douglas (14 goals, 5 assists for Shimizu in 2019) may be the signing of the close season and his partnership with Furuhashi guarantees goals. At the back, only Shonan and Shimizu conceded more than Kobe’s 59 last time out and to that end centre-backs, Ryuho Kikuchi (Renofa Yamaguchi) and Tetsushi Yamakawa (Tsukuba University) were brought in, though these signings appear to be more for the long term rather than right now.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama FC (h) 1-1

Oita Trinita

2019: 9th
Kantoku: Tomohiro Katanosaka (5th year)
Quick Stat: Now departed strikers, Noriaki Fujimoto (Kobe) and Ado Onaiwu (YFM) scored over 50% of Oita’s goals last year (18 out of 35)

Head coach Katanosaka has masterminded a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Kyushu side which saw them move up from J3 to J1 in the space of 3 years. Last season they started like a house on fire before inevitably hitting a bit of a slump, but they were still able to finish an excellent 9th with a squad mainly consisting of players from their 2018 J2 promotion campaign as well as sprinkling of veterans from their J3 days.
Oita had a disappointing start to 2020, going down 1-0 away from home in both of their games, at Shonan in the League Cup and Cerezo a week later in the League.

Squad Update:
Their only transfers of note during the lockdown have been the registrations of Fukuoka University midfielder Kenta Inoue and Kanoya Sports College forward Kazuki Fujimoto as designated special players for 2020. Owing to their small budget, Oita have largely had to try and replace departed stars like Ado Onaiwu and Noriaki Fujimoto with players who’ve performed well at lower levels. Retaining attacking-midfielder Kazuki Kozuka and centre-back Tomoki Iwata was a big boost for the club, though how long they can keep hold of them remains to be seen.

Week 1:
vs Cerezo Osaka (a) 0-1

Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

2019: 10th
Kantoku: Mihailo Petrovic (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Last year was the first time since 2007 that Mihailo Petrovic has coached a team to a bottom half finish in J1.

Improving on 2018’s incredible 4th place finish was always going to be a tall order for Sapporo, and so it proved last year, however, 10th was still a decent showing from Mihailo Petrovic’s men. Although at times a little suspect at the back, they did have strong performers throughout the side, Akito Fukumori’s deadly set-pieces earned him 8 assists, while Chanathip continued to lay on goals for his attacking partners, Jay, Musashi Suzuki and Anderson Lopes. They would have considered themselves unfortunate to lose out to Kawasaki in the lottery of a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup final last year, and this defeat preceded a rather poor end to 2019 which saw them lose 4 of their last 6 league games.
Consadole started 2020 by coasting past Sagan Tosu, 3-0 away in the League Cup, but then went down 4-2 to Kashiwa Reysol in Chiba on the opening day of J1, these results suggest there’ll be plenty of goalmouth action at both ends this campaign.

Squad Update:
The big transfer news story to emerge out of Sapporo during the league’s break was that international goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun would return to his homeland to play for Daegu FC ahead of a 2-year stint in the Korean military. Consadole have already secured the services of Hosei University’s 2M tall stopper Kojiro Nakano for 2021, and have him on a designated special player contract for this year, but whether it is he, Thai international Kawin Thamsatchanan (a recent loan arrival from Leuven in Belgium) or the experienced Takanori Sugeno that takes over the starting spot is up for debate.

Week 1:
vs Kashiwa Reysol (a) 2-4

Vegalta Sendai

2019: 11th
Kantoku: Takashi Kiyama (new)
Quick Stat: New Kashima Antlers full-back Katsuya Nagato provided assists for 26% of Sendai’s goals in 2019.

Sendai secured their second consecutive 11th place finish in J1 last year, perhaps even more impressive than the previous campaign due to the fact that it was achieved with what, on paper at least, looked like a weaker squad. Still, that didn’t stop head coach Susumu Watanabe from losing his job, with Yamagata manager Takashi Kiyama coming in for his first stab at J1 level. Despite J1’s leading assist maker Katsuya Nagato departing for Kashima, off season recruitment had inspired confidence. However, that feel-good factor was only short-lived when it was announced that both Isaac Cuenca and Alexandre Guedes had gone down with injuries before the campaign had even begun. Sendai were thrashed 5-2 at Urawa in the League Cup before holding Nagoya to a 1-1 draw in the League. The break in fixtures has allowed their attacking talent to return, though the loss for the next 2 months of captain Simao Mate is a huge blow, and an extended period of playing in front of no spectators may undermine their impressive home record.

Squad Update:
Exciting news for Sendai is the return of former attacker Takuma Nishimura on loan from CSKA Moscow. He hit 11 goals in 24 games before his big money move to Russia in the summer of 2018 and Vegalta fans will be looking forward with relish to the partnership he can form with Cuenca, Guedes and Shuhei Akasaki. Elsewhere defenders, Hisashi Appiah Tawiah (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Takumi Mase (Hannan University) have both been brought in on designated special player contracts ahead of turning pro next year.
In terms of departures, defender Masato Tokida who played against Urawa in the League Cup has left for Matsumoto in a loan deal and as previously mentioned, backup goalie Lee Yunoh has joined Gamba U-23 on loan, he spent 2019 farmed out to Fukushima United.

Week 1:
vs Nagoya Grampus (h) 1-1

Shimizu S-Pulse

2019: 12th
Kantoku: Peter Cklamovski (new)
Quick Stat: Shimizu had the worst defensive record in J1 last season with 69 goals conceded in total (2.03 per game). They were also one of only two teams to do the double over champions Yokohama F.Marinos (the other was Cerezo Osaka).

One of the biggest stories of last winter was Shimizu’s appointment of Ange Postecoglou’s assistant at Yokohama F.Marinos, Peter Cklamovski. An avid disciple of Ange’s, it’ll be interesting to see how he shapes this S-Pulse side in his image. The JLeague’s no-relegation rule will definitely help with his experimentation which is bound to encounter teething problems. Shimizu had the leakiest back line in J1 last season conceding 69 times, including an 8-0 home reverse against Sapporo. This year it took them 2 games to concede 8 goals, being hammered 5-1 at Kawasaki in the League Cup then putting up a better showing at home to FC Tokyo in the League before ultimately going down 3-1.

Squad Update:
Nothing to report on the transfer front during the lockdown, although S-Pulse did hire a new coach and recruit a number of new players in the off-season. Additionally, midfielders, Yasufumi Nishimura (Okayama) and Kota Miyamoto (FC Gifu) have returned from loan spells, while wide-man Hideki Ishige made a welcome comeback from serious injury and now appears to be seen as an option at full-back. Despite the additions of Yusuke Goto (Oita), Teerasil (Muangthong United) and Carlinhos (Sion) it’s still hard to see anyone getting close to matching Douglas’ 14 league goals scored last year.

Week 1:
vs FC Tokyo (h) 1-3

Nagoya Grampus

2019: 13th
Kantoku: Massimo Ficcadenti (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Nagoya were second only to Sendai in terms of % of total points picked up at home (65% compared with Sendai’s nearly 76%) in 2019.

One of the biggest spenders in the league, Nagoya have flattered to deceive since returning to J1 in 2018. They have a team full of highly talented individuals who rarely add up to the sum of their parts. Italian Massimo Ficcadenti was a surprise choice to replace the much more attack minded Yahiro Kazama midway through last year, however, he was able to steer a side which had been in freefall into a relatively safe 13th spot in the standings. Grampus started 2020 unbeaten, seeing off Kashima Antlers 1-0 at home in the League Cup before having the better of a 1-1 draw away at Sendai in round 1 of J1.

Squad Update:
Former Japan international front-man Mu Kanazaki joined on loan from cash-strapped Tosu at the end of March and he will take the place of Jo, who returned to Corinthians in Brazil (in a deal that seems to have more to it than meets the eye) having only found the net 6 times last season, compared to 24 in the previous campaign. Kanazaki, however, was recently struck down with Covid-19 and passed the virus on to Australian goalkeeper Mitch Langerak. Both players have since recovered, however, the fallout was that the rest of the squad had to endure a period of training together using Zoom while their J1 rivals were all working on the training ground.
During the break, young full-back Yukinari Sugawara turned his loan move to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar into a permanent one after impressing in his first year in the Netherlands.

Week 1:
vs Vegalta Sendai (a) 1-1

Urawa Reds

2019: 14th
Kantoku: Tsuyoshi Otsuki (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Legendary striker Shinzo Koroki has hit double figures in his last 8 league campaigns.

Despite reaching the final of the Asian Champions League last season, finishing 14th in J1, their worst performance since 2011 was simply unacceptable for a club of this size. Thing surely must get better, a lot better, this year if head-coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki wants to remain in his current role. Their was a surprising lack of transfer activity last winter considering the average age and performance of the squad over the previous 12 months, however, Brazilian attacker, Leonardo who joined from Albirex Niigata could well challenge Kobe’s signing of Douglas as the best coup of the transfer window. The former J3 and J2 top scorer introduced himself to the Saitama Stadium supporters with a double on his debut, a 5-2 win at home to Sendai in the League Cup. The defensive frailties that were briefly on show in that game resurfaced a week later in their League opener, a 3-2 victory over a Shonan Bellmare side who are expected to find things tough this year. It looks like Urawa games will be a pretty exciting watch over the coming months.

Squad Update:
The lack of transfer activity from Reds does seem a little surprising viewed from afar, only Ryutsu Keizai midfielder Atsuki Ito has come in on a designated special player contract. However, they may be banking on some of their younger crop of players to develop more over the coming years. Right-sided defender Daiki Hashioka appears to be the pick of the bunch, though left winger Koya Yuroki could also become a key asset if he’s given more game time. Central-midfielder Hidetoshi Takeda joined the club from the cradle of footballing talent that is Aomori Yamada High School last winter, so we can expect good things from him, while Chuo University winger Tomoaki Okubo has again been registered as a designated special player ahead of turning pro with Reds next year. Youth team ‘keeper Zion Suzuki is on a Type-2 amateur contract which allowed him to appear on the bench against both Sendai and Shonan despite still being in high school (he’s already 189cm tall!)

Week 1:
vs Shonan Bellmare (a) 3-2

Sagan Tosu

2019: 15th
Kantoku: Kim Myung-hwi (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Tosu failed to score in 9 out of their first 10 league games in 2019.

If you’re interested enough in Japanese football to read my blog, I’m going to assume you know something about Tosu’s appalling financial situation, so I don’t want to dwell on it too much. The lack of relegation this year would appear to help them more than any other side given that most #jpred2020 entrants had them going down. A very weak squad on paper were humbled 3-0 at home by Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in the League Cup’s first group-stage match this February before gaining a creditable 0-0 draw away to Kawasaki Frontale on the League’s opening day. Much more of that battling spirit will be required in the coming months and years, I feel.

Squad Update:
Mu Kanazaki’s departure on loan to Nagoya may be the first of quite a few in the near future as the club looks to balance it’s books. In terms of arrivals, Chuo University defender Daisuke Matsumoto is in as a designated special player while Tosu U-18 forwards Reoto Kodama and Ryunosuke Sagara as well as defender Shinya Nakano have come in on Type-2 contracts. One intriguing move just before the league started back in February was the acquisition of right-sided Chinese player Wang Jianan from Guangzhou R&F. The current squad has a very youthful feel to it, with midfielders, Fuchi Honda and Daiki Matsuoka (both 19) as well as former Meiji University full-back Ryoya Morishita (23) expected to be key players.

Week 1:
vs Kawasaki Frontale (a) 0-0

Shonan Bellmare

2019: 16th
Kantoku: Bin Ukishima (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Shonan kept the fewest clean sheets in J1 last year (4).

The Cho Kwi-jae power harassment scandal rocked Shonan to the core last summer, sending them into a tail-spin that they were only able to pull out of thanks to a 1-1 draw at home to Tokushima in the play-offs (again the rights and wrongs of that system have been discussed in depth elsewhere so I’ll not go any further into it.) Bin Ukishima, the man who replaced the long serving Cho has been tasked with rebuilding the side and he’s brought in 12 new faces along with 2 players who’ve returned to Bellmare from loan spells. This sort of annual upheaval is not uncommon in these parts and Shonan are likely to be another side who are assisted by the league’s no-relegation rule. Bellmare started 2020 by edging out Oita 1-0 at home in the League Cup, before losing their J1 opener 3-2 to Urawa at the same venue with new Norwegian signing Tarik missing a penalty.

Squad Update:
After a busy winter, Shonan’s lockdown work has been largely focused on the future, 5 youth team players have been registered on Type-2 Contracts, including midfielder Satoshi Tanaka who’ll turn pro next year. Additionally, 20 year-old forward Ryo Nemoto of Kanoya Sports College in Kagoshima and Sho Hiramatsu from Rissho University have joined as a designated special players. The club also announced the capture of midfielder Taiyo Hiraoka from Riseisha High School for 2021, though he hasn’t yet been registered for this campaign. Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, there has still been no announcement from the club regarding the futures of 2 Brazilians, Crislan and Leleu, who were on the books last year, I assume neither will be back, but usually JLeague teams are good at keeping the fans informed about this sort of thing.

Week 1:
vs Urawa Reds (h) 2-3

Kashiwa Reysol

2019: 1st (J2)
Kantoku: Nelsinho (2nd year – current spell)
Quick Stat: The last time Kashiwa won J2, they went on to lift the J1 title the following year (2011). Current head coch Nelsinho was also in charge back then.

Under legendary manager Nelsinho, Kashiwa are back in the top flight following a one-year sojourn in J2. After a few bumps and bruises in the early rounds, Reysol’s class eventually told and they were worthy champions, their season of course ending with that memorable 13-1 rout of Kyoto Sanga. They’ve kept most of last year’s championship winning side intact and added a cast of 2019 J2 all stars, how will they do in J1 this year?
They got 2020 off to the best possible start with a 1-0 win away to Gamba in the rain in February’s League Cup clash, goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, left-back Taiyo Koga and inevitably the well-known attacking duo of Cristiano and Olunga were all in fine form. That victory was then backed up by a 4-2 triumph in a thrilling match at home to Sapporo in round 1 of J1 with both Esaka and Olunga notching doubles. They have more than enough attacking talent, but for me centre-back and centre-midfield are areas for concern. They’ll certainly be interesting to watch this year.

Squad Update:
Kashiwa’s only lockdown work has been to move youth product Keita Ide to Tochigi SC in what appears to be a full transfer, I say appears as he was only promoted to the top team last winter. There have been no ins during the break, though Reysol did recruit quite heavily in the off-season and have no doubt taken this opportunity to try and bring their ex-J2 players up to speed. I’m particularly excited by versatile 23 year-old midfielder Yuta Kamiya who spent 2019 with Ehime, on-loan from Shonan. Right-back Kengo Kitazume who joined from Yokohama FC looks a solid addition too, and I can see him taking over from Shunki Takahashi before much longer. Two other interesting coups were Hiroto Goya (Nagasaki – on loan from Gamba), who netted 22 goals in 36 J2 games last year and former youth team product Hayato Nakama (Okayama) who struck an impressive 15 times in 40 J2 matches from left midfield in 2019. These 2 undoubtedly possess the ability, but can they unseat one of the top dogs such as, Olunga, Cristiano, Esaka or Segawa, to nail down a starting berth?

Week 1:
vs Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo (h) 4-2

Yokohama FC

2019: 2nd (J2)
Kantoku: Takahiro Shimotaira (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kazuyoshi Miura made his JLeague debut on 15 May 1993, over 8 years before team-mate Koki Saito was born.

Hear the name Yokohama FC and you probably instantly think of their famous veterans, Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura and Shunsuke Nakamura, then probably to a lesser extent, guys like Leandro Domingues, Ibba Laajab, Daisuke Matsui and Masahiko Inoha. However, bubbling under the surface are some of the hottest young talents in Japanese football, attacking trio, Koki Saito (18), Katsuhiro Nakayama (23) and Yusuke Matsuo (22) combined for 18 goals and 11 assists last season to help Yokohama FC achieve only the second season of top flight football in their history. Things will be tough for sure for this squad of ageing stars and up-and-comers, they started things off with a tame 2-0 loss at home to a wily Sanfrecce side in the League Cup, before holding Kobe to a respectable 1-1 draw in the League opener in Hyogo. Tatsuki Seko, another young gun who was recruited in the off-season from Meiji University netted Yokohama’s goal on his senior debut, he’s also one to look out for this year.

Squad Update:
A couple of pieces of transfer news to report from Yokohama during the lockdown, Hosei University defender Yuya Takagi was registered as a designated special player, he’ll turn pro when he’s finished with his studies next year. Full-back Yuta Fujii also made a permanent move to J2 outfit Avispa Fukuoka, he made a mere 5 appearances for Yokohama FC in 2019. Finally, a quick shout out to a name I didn’t mention above, left-back Takaaki Shichi (5 goals and 4 assists in 39 games for Mito HollyHock last year), his signing may have largely flown under the radar, but in my books it looks like a very shrewd move.

Week 1:
vs Vissel Kobe (a) 1-1