4 March ~ There can't be too many teams that have managed to lose five games in a row and still be crowned champions, but Kashima Antlers have achieved such a tight stranglehold over the J.League that they could do just that last season. As the 2010 season kicks off on March 6, their competitors can only be hoping that Kashima, which literally translates as "deer island", will be losing motivation after becoming the first-ever team to win three straight titles.
When the Japanese professional era was launched amid great fanfare in 1993, this relatively small town club was only expected to make up the numbers. But, with Zico spending the twilight years of his career leaving defenders on their arses, they became a force and are now by far the most decorated team with seven titles to date. Their current maestro is Mitsuo Ogasawara, a tidy midfielder who, despite being ignored by the national side for four years, has quietly matured into the league's most effective playmaker and comfortably picked up 2009's Player of the Year award.
However, the chasing pack have secured the services of some high-profile returnees from Europe in their attempts to close the gap. Former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura has cut his losses on a brief tenure with Espanyol and returned to his former club Yokohama Marinos. He will have his work cut out to revive a team that has rarely threatened since winning the league in 2004. Meanwhile, Shimizu S Pulse, one of the more consistent performers of recent years, have acquired enigmatic attacker Shinji Ono, arguably more talented than Nakamura but as yet Japan's great unfulfilled hope. Perhaps the best chance of success lies with Junichi Inamoto as the nomadic former Fulham and West Brom midfielder has returned to Kawasaki Frontale, attractive runners-up in the last two seasons.
The biggest domestic transfer of the winter represented a potential power shift in terms of ambition and financial muscle. Urawa Reds boast 40,000 plus attendances and have long been seen as Asia's first superclub. Yet their talisman Marcus Tulio Tanaka, a Brazilian/Japanese defender with a penchant for surging forward, was disillusioned by the club's slide since hoisting the Asian Champions League in 2007 – Urawa finished sixth last term – and has been tempted away by Nagoya Grampus. Gary Lineker's former employers finished even lower but coach Dragan Stojkovic has been splashing the cash in efforts to create what would be their first ever championship-winning side.
Given that Tanaka chose not to follow the well-trodden path to Europe, with Wigan and FC Twente reported suitors, the transfer also suggests a maturing status of the J.League and domestic standards within it. Last year Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata was the first Japanese top scorer since 2002, while the season's best XI was entirely home-grown for the first time ever.
There are crumbs of comfort for the title contenders, which also include Gamba Osaka and 2009 surprise packages Sanfreece Hiroshima. Continental success has eluded Kashima and coach Oswaldo Oliveira has promised renewed efforts, but while Japanese clubs have dominated the Champions League recently it is usually at the expense of domestic form. Also there is the fact that the J.League championship is one of the tightest in world football. Since ditching a two-stage play-off system in favour of a conventional campaign in 2005 the title has been decided on the final day each season, once with five clubs still in the frame. Kashima have proved they have the bottle, so any potential champion will need to be above them going into the final round. Matthew Knott