J-League season looms large
© AFP

Excitement is building across Japan as the countdown continues ahead of the start of the new J-League season. FIFA.com looks at the season ahead in J1, where competition for places in the Japanese national team in their quest to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has added another element to the domestic showpiece.

Big guns take aim
Kashima Antlers, J-League champions for the last two seasons, signalled their intent for the forthcoming campaign with an impressive 3-0 victory over Emperor's Cup winners Gamba Osaka in the recent Fuji Xerox Super Cup. "We've got some big goals ahead of us such as winning our third consecutive league title and taking the Asian Champions League for the first time," said Antlers' Brazilian coach Oswaldo de Oliveira. Boosted by the talents of up-and-coming stars Shinzo Koroki and Atsuto Uchida, Kashima appear strong favourites to hold onto their crown.

Up against the Kashima outfit in their opening match is an epic confrontation with heavyweights Urawa Red Diamonds, who finished third at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. Supporters from both camps will be hoping their team can get off to the best possible start against a potential title rival. Coaching the Reds this season will be German supremo Volker Finke, who held the reins at Freiburg for a total of 16 years, in a stint which including two UEFA Cup campaigns. Finke takes charge of a team many observers felt should have collected silverware last year, given the strength of a squad which includes current Japanese internationals Naohiro Takahara, Tatsuya Tanaka, Yuki Abe and Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

We've got some big goals ahead of us such as winning our third consecutive league title and taking the Asian Champions League for the first time.
Kashima Antlers' Brazilian coach Oswaldo de Oliveira

Also hoping to be in the mix come the end of the domestic season are reigning Asian club champions Gamba Osaka, and 2008 J-League runners-up Kawasaki Frontale. Gamba's squad includes a number of national team regulars such as midfielder Yasuhito Endo, and they will be wary of accumulated fatigue affecting their internationals as a busy season progresses. Sure to work in their favour is the fact that coach Akira Nishino has now had time to hone a dynamic short-passing game that has the potential to both entertain and be successful. "At the moment we'll still making adjustments to the system and experimenting with different players," said Nishino ahead of the Super Cup defeat, though his side will be tested in their opener against a JEF United Chiba side guided by former Liverpool assistant coach Alex Miller.

Frontale are another club that will be challenged by the competing demands of both domestic and international club football. If they can successfully adjust, and midfielder Kengo Nakamura continues to underline his status as one of Japan's finest playmakers, then a first J-League title is well within the club's reach.

Dark horses prepare their charge
Looking to upset the favourites will be Nagoya Grampus Eight, who, under Dragan Stojkovic, have implemented the 4-4-2 system favoured by Arsene Wenger during his time managing the club. Having been one of the most attacking and entertaining sides on show last season, Grampus will be hoping new Brazilian signing Davi can fill the shooting boots of Norwegian Frode Johnsen, now with Shimizu S-Pulse.

Oita Trinita, a once modest outfit turned around by well-respected Brazilian coach Chamusca, will be keen to build on their Yamazaki Nabisco Cup success with a sustained championship challenge. Lining up in a well-drilled 3-4-1-2 system, Oita compensate for a lack of star-quality with teamwork and tactical nous, topped off by a well-established and effective front pairing in Daiki Takamatsu and Brazilian Ueslei.

New ground for Yamagata
Fresh from winning promotion to the Japanese top flight for the first time in their history, Montedio Yamagata will be determined to make light of the division's smallest annual budget and lowest average age. "We're a young team and don't have many players with J1 experience, but this only means that there's room for them to grow if we can get decent results," said coach Shinji Kobayashi.

However, given their lack of experience and resources compared to fellow promoted outfit Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Yamagata have been widely tipped to head back to J2 come the season's end.