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After three successive title successes Kashima Antlers are once again the team to beat in the J.League

Reigning champions Kashima Antlers kick off the new season looking for their fourth consecutive J.League title. Once again, Marquinhos and Shinzo Koroki spearhead their attack, but South Korea centre-back Lee Jung-soo from Kyoto Sanga and on-loan left-back Gilton, who was with Albirex Niigata last year, will bring stiffer competition to key defensive positions. The one big concern is on the left side of midfield, where Masashi Motoyama has a back injury, which means new signing Fellype Gabriel from Portuguesa of Brazil will be expected to produce from the start.

Kawasaki Frontale have finished second in three of the last four seasons and the pressure is on returning manager Tsutomu Takahata to prove they can go all the way.

Frontale should be stronger moving the ball forward thanks to the arrival of 2002 and 2006 World Cup midfielder Junichi Inamoto from French club Rennes and talented left-back Takanobu Komiyama from Yokohama F.Marinos, with both serving the same eager attacking formation of Renatinho, Chong Tese, Juninho and Kengo Nakamura.

Likewise, Gamba Osaka will also continue using foreigners up front, with Japanese behind. Tomokazu Myojin and 2009’s Asian player of the year Yasuhito Endo will anchor midfield, while the Brazilian duo Ze Carlos from Portuguesa and 19-year old Dodo from J.2 side Ehime join the competition for the two attacking roles along countrymen Lucas Severino and Pedro Junior, and South Korea’s Cho Jae-jin.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima have secured Gamba Osaka striker Masato Yamazaki on loan, along with midfielder Satoru Yamagishi from Kawasaki and keeper Shusaku Nishikawa from Oita Trinita. The loss of Yosuke Kashiwagi to Urawa Reds will hurt, but Serbia-born manager Mihailo Petrovic, in charge since 2006, has a well-established squad. The key players include national-team striker Hisato Sato and Bulgaria’s Ilian Stoyanov, who will be at the heart of the top flight’s only remaining three-man back line.

Young manager Hiroshi Jofuku has already given Tokyo two of their best-ever seasons and they should be pushing for higher things this time around. Ricardinho, on a one-year loan from Atletico Paranaense, adds bite to the attack and young Masato Morishige from Oita is a big signing in defence, where he can expect to play alongside three members of Japan’s current national squad.

Urawa Red Diamonds have lost Japan defender Tulio Tanaka to Nagoya Grampus, but Kashiwagi is a great signing for the hole behind the strikers and the back line should also improve with the loan signings of recuperating Australia centre-back Matthew Spiranovic from Nurnberg and Burkina Faso left-back Wilfreid Sanou from Koln, who coach Volker Finke worked with in Germany at Freiburg.

In Shinji Okazaki and Frode Johnsen, Shimizu S-Pulse already have two of the league’s best strikers and they have now finally signed the city’s most famous former schoolboy as well, with 2002 and 2006 World Cup midfielder Shinji Ono joining from Bochum. Eddy Bosnar is another good signing from JEF Chiba in defence. Former international striker Hisashi Kurosaki steps up from assistant coach at Albirex Niigata, but his squad looks weaker with the departure of Mitsuru Chiyotanda to Grampus, Toshihiro Matsushita to Tokyo and Gilton to Antlers. Nagoya Grampus have lost Maya Yoshida (Holland’s VVV Venlo) and Milos Bajalica (released), but gained Mu Kanazaki (Oita) and Tulio (Urawa Reds) so they should be strong enough to bounce back this season.

Yokohama F.Marinos have signed Argentinian forward Pablo Bastianini from Boca Unidos, but money is tight for new boss, former Marinos and Japan striker Kazushi Kimura. Jubilo Iwata have released several aging stars – Hideto Suzuki (retired), Masashi Nakayama (Consadole Sapporo), and Takayuki Chano and Shinji Murai (both JEF Chiba) – but could do rather well with a team that includes four South Koreans as well as last season’s top scorer Ryoichi Maeda and Japan full-back Yuichi Komano.

Kyoto Sanga have three new foreigners in South Korea full-back Kwak Tae-hwi from Chunnam Dragons and Brazilian duo Dutra, from Santo Andre, and Thiego, who is loan from Gremio. Omiya Ardija have revamped their defence, where the new partners for Croatia’s Mato Neretljak include Kazuhiro Murakami from Frontale, Yuki Fukaya from Oita, Shusuke Tsubouchi on loan from Vissel Kobe and Arata Sugiyama from J.2 side Ventforet Kofu. As well as Tsubouchi, Vissel Kobe have lost Kim Nam-il to Tom Tomsk of Russia and loanees Alan Bahia and Marcel, who have returned to Atletico Paranaense and Benfica respectively. However, they did acquire Popo, who was on loan at Kashiwa Reysol last year, from Gyeongnam of South Korea and Edmilson from Oita.

Montedio Yamagata did well to stay up last term in their first-ever season in the top flight and they have now secured useful reinforcements such as Tomi Shimomura from JEF Chiba and Chikashi Masuda and Yuzo Tashiro on loan from Antlers in a bid for a repeat performance.

Last year’s J.2 champions Vegalta Sendai, who are returning to the top flight after a six-year absence, have good strikers in Takayuki Nakahara, Tomoyuki Hirase and Reinaldo, who has joined from Cruzeiro, while Fernandinho from Oita and Yoshiaki Ota from Jubilo will reinforce their midfield.

Cerezo Osaka finished runners-up to Vegalta and boast two of the national team’s rising youngsters in Shinji Kagawa, who was J.2’s top scorer with 27 goals last term, and Takashi Inui. Their many impressive new signings include Taikai Uemoto, Daisuke Takahashi and Hiroshi Kiyotake from Oita, Akihiro Ienaga on loan from Gamba, Teruyuki Moniwa from Tokyo, Ryuji Bando from Gamba Osaka, striker Adriano on loan from Internacional and midfielder Amaral from Vasco da Gama.

The third promoted club, Shonan Bellmare, return after 10 seasons in the second tier and have also made sweeping squad changes. But Hidetoshi Nakata’s old club have no big names and Japan’s 2008 Olympic manager Yasuharu Sorimachi may have a difficult season with mostly the same first-choice players as last year.

Season starts
March 6, 2010

Mid-season break
May 16, 2010 to July 17, 2010

Season ends
December 4, 2010

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