J League Preview
The following is second of a two-part preview for the upcoming J. League season. Team-by-team previews of the nine highest-ranking teams competing in the first division are listed.
Last season: champions (third in overall table)
Kashima could not have wished for a better end to last season, winning a record eighth J. League title and the Emperor’s Cup, as well as almost pulling off an almighty upset against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final.
What was not so impressive was Antlers’ patchy form leading up to that dramatic finale, with the team looking distinctly average for much of the season.
Kashima finished third in the overall table, a full 13 points behind second-place Kawasaki Frontale and just one ahead of fourth-place Gamba Osaka. Antlers even lost their last four games of the regular season, but the fact that they got it together when it counted should be ample warning for their rivals in 2017.
Kashima will have to defend its title without playmaker Gaku Shibasaki, who impressed in a more advanced role last year but has since left for Spanish second-division side Tenerife. The squad still looks well stocked in the creative department, however, with forwards Mu Kanazaki and Yasushi Endo being joined over the winter by Brazilians Leo Silva and Pedro Junior.
Add to that a solid defense and a midfield superbly marshalled by Mitsuo Ogasawara and Ryota Nagaki, and it is clear that Antlers start 2017 among the title favorites.
If they can find the consistency that they lacked last year, Antlers could well come out on top again.
Last season: runner-up (first in overall table)
Reds were no strangers to stunning collapses even before last season’s defeat to Kashima Antlers in the championship final, but that will not have made the pain of missing out on the title despite finishing top of the overall table any easier to take.
The question for manager Mihailo Petrovic now is how the latest trauma affects his team heading into the new season. It was plain to see last year that Reds perform much better when they shake off the fear and play with confidence, but there were times when they seemed frozen by nerves and opponents will be quick to exploit that weakness again in 2017.
Urawa certainly has a squad capable of winning the title, and offseason comings and goings have been largely restricted to squad players. Forward Rafael Silva will bring extra creativity after arriving from Albirex Niigata, while speedy striker Ado Onaiwu could be a useful weapon coming off the bench.