J.League audition for Brazil aspirants
© Getty Images

Japan’s J.League – one of Asia’s most enduring and popular competitions – kicks off its 2014 season on Saturday with even more intrigue than normal. Champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima are eying a third successive crown amid a host of clubs boasting strong title credentials.

The year also marks another important milestone in the history of Japanese football, with a third tier national division commencing next weekend. The new expansion comes just 15 years since J.2 was established, with the J.League itself having been formed in 1993.

Brazil dreaming
Amid the usual colour and excitement of Japan’s professional competitions will be a fascinating sub-plot. Though the quantity of Japanese-based players in Europe has increased dramatically in recent years, numerous locals are likely to feature in Alberto Zaccheroni’s FIFA World Cup™ squad for Brazil. Just over half of the squad for next week’s home international against New Zealand is comprised of J.League-based players.

Brazil aspirants will have 14 matchdays in which to impress before the J.League takes a mid-season break in May. Zaccheroni has again proven that playing in J.2 will not necessarily be a deterrent to Samurai Blue selection. Notably, the seemingly ageless Yasuhito Endo has remained a regular for the national team despite Gamba Osaka’s shock demotion at the end of 2012. Experienced Jubilo Iwata defensive duo Yuichi Komano and Masahiko Inoha also earned call-ups this week, despite their own club’s equally surprising relegation last December.

At the other end of the age scale, striker Yoichiro Kakitani and midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi put themselves into contention with breakthrough showings last season for the rapidly-improving Cerezo Osaka – the same club that produced Shinji Kagawa.

Sanfrecce aim for historic achievement
Reigning champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima proved last season that they boast resilience and quality in equal measure, winning the league in highly dramatic fashion. The southern club somehow overhauled Yokohama F. Marinos despite facing a five-point deficit with two rounds remaining. Having successfully managed the transition from hunter to hunted, they will now aim to become only the second club after Kashima Antlers to win a third successive title.

Amid the chasing pack, much focus will be on Cerezo Osaka. The club have attracted many of the off-season headlines by signing Uruguay’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hero Diego Forlan in a move reminiscent of the J.League’s early years, when high-profile international recruits were commonplace. Appropriately enough, Cerezo host Sanfrecce on Saturday’s opening day of the season.

Elsewhere, Marinos - with reigning player of the year and ex-Celtic favourite Shunsuke Nakamura in their line-up - will aim to overcome last season’s late collapse. However, there were few positives to take as Sanfrecce retained the J.League Super Cup with a 2-0 win last weekend.

Third-placed Kawasaki Frontale boast striker Yoshito Okubo, whose 26 goals last season was the highest by a local product since 1998. Urawa Red Diamonds, traditionally the league’s best-supported club, have added Tadanari Lee from Southampton, with the striker of Korean descent famous for having scored the winner for Japan in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final.

The new season also opens with some interesting international coaching recruits. FC Tokyo have brought in Italian Massimo Ficcadenti, and Vegalta Sendai will be managed by former Australia coach Graham Arnold.