One of Asia’s most popular and most enduring leagues returns to the spotlight on Saturday with the opening round of the 2013 J.League season. A steady flow of playing talent has made its way from Japan to Europe in recent seasons, providing evidence of the league’s success in terms of talent production.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s maiden title win last term continued another theme of recent years, with no club seemingly able to maintain domination of the domestic scene. Since the last of Kashima Antlers' three consecutive titles in 2009, the J.League has witnessed three different victors - Nagoya Grampus, Kashiwa Reysol and Sanfrecce Hiroshima - all of whom were crowned champions for the first time. At the same time, some of the traditional elite have struggled, with Urawa Red Diamonds narrowly avoiding the drop in 2011, while another former Asian champion, Gamba Osaka, fell through the relegation trap-door at the end of last season.

The 18-team J.League runs until early December, while the 22-strong J.League 2, despite the extra rounds, concludes in late November. The top three clubs in the J.League will qualify for the following year's AFC Champions League, while the bottom three clubs will be relegated to J2. The season will conclude with the Emperor’s Cup, now in its 92nd year, which is open to professional and amateur teams alike, with the winner to also earn a berth in the Champions League.

Champions curse
Having broken a long drought to be crowned J.League kings, Sanfrecce now face the challenge of being the hunted rather the hunter. It is a task that recent predecessors have been unable to meet. 2011 winners Kashiwa, who remarkably won in their first season after promotion, finished sixth last year. Nagoya Grampus, champions in 2010, were runners-up in 2011 but dropped to seventh last year, despite a star-studded roster under Dragan Stojkovic.

Sanfrecce though can draw a level of comfort from their start to 2013 having edged a 1-0 win in last weekend’s Super Cup showdown against cup winners Kashiwa. Additionally the southern club have hung on to much of their squad, including last year’s leading J.League goalscorer Hisato Sato.

We are not going to start the season as the defending champions. We will start as challengers again.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Hisato Sato

Though his 22 goals last year was the highest tally by a Japanese player to top the leading scorers list since Naohiro Takahara in 2002, Sato is clearly remaining grounded. “We still have a lot of room to improve as a team and as individuals,” he said. "We are not going to start the season as the defending champions. We will start as challengers again.”

Sanfrecce open up with one of the red-letter fixtures on the calendar with Urawa Red Diamonds visiting Hiroshima. The Saitama-based outfit are the best supported club in Japan and pressure, as always, will be on Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic who declared that “about 12 teams will be aiming to win the title or at least to be in the top three this year.”

Continental diversion
Last season’s top three - Sanfrecce, Vegalta Sendai and Urawa - plus Emperor’s Cup winners Kashiwa, are all tipped to be in contention for domestic glory, but the physical hardship they face by competing in the AFC Champions League will provide an added challenge. Indeed, the continental representative go into this weekend’s matches having played on Wednesday.

Surprisingly only one of Japan’s representatives, Kashiwa, managed to collect all three points in midweek thanks to a lone strike from newly acquired Brazilian striker Cleo, who has arrived amid fanfare from Chinese Super League big-spenders Guangzhou Evergrande. “Our target is to win all the titles on offer,” says Kashiwa’s coach Nelsinho.

Vegalta Sendai will be favoured among many neutrals with the club, who hail from the region heavily affected by 2011’s Great East Earthquake, engaged in a season-long battle for the crown before finishing second, their best ever result.