Last season’s J.League title race was perhaps the closest in the 19-year history of the competition, culminating in new boys Kashiwa Reysol crowning a stunning campaign with a maiden championship. A four-way charge eventually gave way to a dramatic three-team tussle over the closing third of the season, with Kashiwa defying the odds to stave off the challenge of more traditional contenders in Nagoya Grampus Eight and Gamba Osaka.

It was an astonishing achievement by the Sun Kings, who became the first team to win in their first season after promotion from J.League 2. Coach Nelsinho Baptista led a Brazilian revolution at Reysol, with Jorge Wagner and Leandro Domingues lifting the team to glory on the final day of the season. Repeating that success could prove difficult, with some of the competition’s elite clubs re-inforcing their respective squads through both local and imported talent.

Giants seek to conquer
Pipped by just a point on the final day were Nagoya, who had ended a long draught by winning their maiden championship in emphatic fashion the previous year. Nagoya coach Dragan Stojkovic, who featured prominently for the club as a player, is in confident mood describing his squad as “perfect". The team have a host of high-profile players including Japan internationals Keiji Tamada, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Jungo Fujimoto, while the attack is led by beanpole Australian forward Josh Kennedy, who was last year’s top goalscorer having shared the title with Jubilo Iwata’s Ryoichi Maeda the previous year.

The third of last year’s contenders – Gamba Osaka – are, like Nagoya, another major club with genuine hopes of stealing Kashiwa’s glory. Like their two rivals, the distraction of the AFC Champions League during the opening months of the season could prove a major hurdle. So too, the arrival of a new coach in Brazilian Jose Carlos Serrao means that the 2008 Asian champions are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Nevertheless, their playing roster arguably remains the equal of any in the league, headed as it is by Yasuhito Endo and new signing, Korea Republic starlet Lee Seung-Yeoul.

Japan’s most successful club – seven-time champions Kashima Antlers – had a very poor campaign by their lofty standards, finishing sixth, 22 points off the pace. As part of their rejuvenation, Brazilian Jorginho has been handed the reins with the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ winner having spent four successful years at the club during the 1990s. The Antlers have been modest in the transfer market with sharpshooter Juninho – a ten-year veteran of the J.League – a notable arrival from Kawasaki Frontale.

New contenders join the fray
Kashiwa’s unforeseen success last year is evidence that few clubs can be discounted, and a team that avoided relegation by a slim margin are one such contender. Urawa Red Diamonds, the nation’s best supported club, escaped an unthinkable relegation by just three points, but expectations as always remain high at Japan’s first Asian champions. New coach Mihailo Petrovic has brought in defender Tomoaki Makino on loan from Cologne, while hard-working midfielder Yuki Abe returns to Saitama after a stint in England.

The likes of Yokohama F Marinos, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai, will provide more than just nuisance value, while perhaps another threat to Kashiwa’s crown will come from a team that are undertaking a similar journey to the Sun Kings.

Sleeping giants FC Tokyo, who last year won J.2 in stylish fashion, bounced back into the top tier at the first attempt. They then crowned their year with a maiden Emperor’s Cup win on New Year’s Day. The capital club pushed Kashiwa all the way in last weekend’s Super Cup, before impressing with a midweek win against Australian champions Brisbane Roar on their AFC Champions League debut. With Kashiwa showing the way last year, FC Tokyo will be hoping history does repeat.