Unpredictable season ahead for J-League Aussies

Nagoya Grampus' Mitch Langerak (L) and Yokohama F.Marinos coach Ange Postecoglou (R). Source: Getty Images

The gap of four months between the first game of the season and the second may have felt longer but the cardboard cutouts are ready, the coronavirus tests have been taken and the Australian contingent is preparing for the restart of the J.League.

Ange Postecoglou will be hoping that this start goes better than the last.

Back in the distant days of December 2019, the Aussie tactician led Yokohama F.Marinos to the title in thrilling style.

Here was an Australian coach taking a league already known for being technically the best in Asia to a new level.

The football was fluid, ambitious and often beautiful.

Best of all, it got results and over 60,000 fans packed into the Nissan Stadium to watch the Marinos defeat rivals FC Tokyo on the final day to take the trophy for the first time since 2004.

Then there were two fine wins in the AFC Champions League in February as the Blues sent out a signal to the rest of the continent, defeating South Korean and Australian powerhouses Jeonbuk Motors and Sydney FC respectively.

The start of the defence started with a 2-1 loss at home to Gamba Osaka.

That wasn’t quite in the script but demonstrated that the J-League is nothing if not unpredictable and while winning the league was tough, a successful defence will be another challenge entirely especially in current circumstances.

A visit to Urawa Reds this weekend will be another test, though Saitama Stadium will not be its usual rocking self with empty seats the new normal for now at least.

Once the J-League Player of the Year Teruhito Nakagawa gets back into the groove along with Marcos Junior, the two tied for league top scorer last season with 15 goals each, then Yokohama will be hard to stop once more even with the return of Brazilian winger Mateus to Nagoya Grampus.

The former Socceroos boss has made some astute signings, if Ado Onaiwu’s two goals against Sydney are anything to go by.

With relegation removed from the equation this season, there is an expectation that teams will be more attacking than before as fear of the drop has been removed.

If this is the case then Postecoglou, whose team ended up as top scorers last season, is smart enough to use it to his advantage.

That is just one change. The hectic schedule and the empty stadiums could well be a great leveller in the coming weeks and months but it is likely that FC Tokyo will be there or thereabouts and certain that they will be desperate for revenge.

After leading for most of 2019, the Gasmen were undone at the end by a lack of goals. That seems to have been rectified.

Kashima Antlers, the most successful club in the league’s history can never be discounted, and then there is Vissel Kobe.

The big-spending club has never won the title but do have a certain Andres Iniesta in their ranks and also defeated Yokohama in the opening game of the season over three months ago.

At one time Nagoya Grampus would be included as a challenger but the heady days of 2010 when the club won a first and, to date, only title are receding into history.

With Mitch Langerak between the sticks, the Aichi club looked good for the first third of 2019, sitting in second with seven wins from the first 11 games.

There were just two victories in the next 23 however as Nagoya slipped down the rankings to finish 13th and had the season lasted a little longer, relegation would have turned from possibility to probability.

On paper, Nagoya look stronger now. As well as Mateus returning from his successful loan period with the Marinos, Mu Kanazaki and Hiroyuki Abe have arrived and should make a difference.

If Grampus should be stronger, it is harder to predict what will happen to Shimizu S-Pulse, situated on the coast between Tokyo and Nagoya.

The Shizuoka club spent the first half of last season struggling near the bottom though eventually hauled themselves up to 12th.

The departure of Brazilian striker Douglas to Kobe was a blow. It all adds up to a tough challenge for Peter Cklamovski.

Postecoglou’s assistant at Yokohama had not long made the move to the head coach position when he was confronted with the coronavirus.

Whatever happens, this year will be an amazing experience. And with no relegation the Aussie can go ahead with focusing on getting his players used to a Marinos-style attacking style without worrying about the drop.

The J-League is unpredictable at the best of times, in the current situation nobody knows what will happen but it is sure to be an exciting season.