Quartet set for title tussle
© AFP

The 2008 J-League gets underway this weekend, and if the 16th edition of the competition is as dramatic as its predecessor, followers of the Japanese top flight are in for a treat. Urawa Reds Diamonds controlled the title race for so long last season, but on its final day Kashima Antlers extended their winning streak to nine matches to pip their rivals to gold.

It was Kashima's fifth J-League crown, and they compounded their joy by winning the Emperor's Cup. Urawa and Gamba Osaka also had reason to cheer, though, after taking the top prize in the AFC Champions League and the Nabisco Cup respectively.

The trio, together with Kawasaki Frontale, who fell just short on several fronts last term, have been installed as the favourites for 2008 ascendancy. But the quartet know that with senior internationals and the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 set to deprive them of key players, and AFC Champions League campaigns to undertake, astute squad management could hold the key to success.

Signings boost Reds and Antlers
Urawa Reds hold on edge on their rivals in two regards. Firstly, as the reigning continental champions they will receive a bye into the group phase of the Champions League. Moreover, their strength in depth - especially within their attacking ranks - should help them overcome an injury crisis, which is something that derailed their challenge in 2007.

Arrivals include former Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara, now back in his homeland following six years in the German Bundesliga, and ex-Red Bull Salzburg winger Alessandro Santos, along with prolific forward Edmilson and FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 standout Tsukasa Umesaki, who joined from Albirex Niigata and Oita Trinita respectively. These newcomers should compensate for the loss of playmaker Robson Ponte to long-term injury, and the overseas departures of Shinji Ono, Makoto Hasebe and Washington.

Kashima's triumph was indebted to the possession football advocated by coach Oswaldo Oliveira, and their title defence will again hinge on the influence of veteran midfielders Mitsuo Ogasawara and Masashi Motoyama. In addition to retaining all of their key defensive players, the Antlers will be bolstered by the signing of U-23 star Masahiko Inoha from FC Tokyo and the steadily improving performances of senior internationals Atsuto Uchida, Yuzo Tashiro and Daiki Iwamasa.

Long-serving coach seeks consistency
Akira Nishino will begin a record seventh season at the Gamba Osaka helm, but it was his side's inconsistency that cost them last season. Though unlikely to neglect Gamba's one-touch passing game, Nishino appears ready to try out new tactics and man-management methods to avoid a repeat of last season's late collapse.

In Bare and Lucas Severino, signed from F.C. Tokyo to replace the outgoing Magno Alves, Gamba will not be short on firepower, while their rearguard has been bolstered by the likes of Mineiro, Hiroki Mizumoto and Yohei Fukumoto. Following a prosperous pre-season, and with several talented youngsters in their squad, Gamba fans could be forgiven for thinking that this is their year.

Having narrowly missed out on silverware last year, Kawasaki Frontale will be determined to come out on top in 2008. If new arrivals such as striker Hulk and midfielder Satoru Yamagishi can combine proficiently with the side's existing stars, namely Juninho, Chong Tese and Kengo Nakamura, then perhaps the title is not beyond their reach.

While the main contenders all made big headlines by recruiting players, other sides chose to make waves with coaching appointments. Yokohama F. Marinos handed their reins to Takashi Kuwahara, well known for guiding Jubilo Iwata to the 1997 and 1999 titles, while Nagoya Grampus popularly made Dragan Stojkovic their new man in charge.

Favourably, these coaches should be operating in front of increased audiences due to the ongoing popularity explosion of the J-League. With the aim of hitting the 11-million attendance mark by 2010, officials have set a target of 9.5 million for the coming year. And given everything the 2008 season delivered, supporters are expected to get their money's worth.