Opinion

Why Postecoglou faces unpredictable J.League season

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The J.League is nothing if not competitive, as demonstrated in the opening weekend of the 2020 season.

Yokohama F. Marinos looked excellent winning the title last December and have been understandably installed as favourites once again, but Ange Postecoglou got a taste of how hard life can be like as defending champions when their first game ended in a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Gamba Osaka.

It is likelier to be a blip than a sign of anything more serious, as suggested by the club’s imperious performances in the AFC Champions League - wins over Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Motors and Aussies Sydney FC - but does show that if winning a first title since 2004 is hard, then a successful defence is even harder.

Indeed, introducing continental football into the mix, something that was not the case last year, adds an extra element.

Yet the longer Postecoglou stays, at least up to a point, the feeling is that the better Yokohama will get.

The team has a deeper squad than last season with the solid signings of striker Ado Onaiwu (who scored twice against Sydney) and Kota Mizunuma, and loan stars Theerathon Bunmathan and Thiago Martins now permanent players.

And another pre-season with the hottest coaching property in Asia can’t hurt.

The question may be whether the former Australia boss has been too successful with how well others can copy the relentless attacking style that has so impressed.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Kawasaki Frontale, Yokohama’s predecessor as champions, may well be the biggest threat in 2020.

Yet young Thomas Deng may also have a say in whether Postecoglou can turn one into two. The defender was snapped up by Urawa Reds, a club that can lay claim to be Japan’s biggest, after a fine showing at the AFC U-23 Championships in January for the Olyroos.

It was a surprise signing in that the two-time Asian title-winners are not short of centre-backs, but the move gives Deng a real opportunity to improve and show what he can do.

The same goes for Urawa. The Saitama side reached the final of the AFC Champions League while battling against relegation for much of 2019.

There should be no such worries this time around and not just because there are no continental commitments.

The signing of Leonardo, who scored 28 goals for second tier Albirex Niigata provides more firepower to a team that only managed a goal per game last season.

The Brazilian’s strike in the opening round 3-2 win at Shonan Bellmare should be a sign of things to come and Urawa are aiming to finish considerably higher than 14th this season.

While it will be fascinating to see if Yokohama can protect their crown, fans down under will be just as interested to see how Shimizu S-Pulse get on.

For those of a certain age, this team has long been an easy one to like with a history of orange shirts and a fine football stadium from which Mount Fuji can be seen on a clear day. Never a powerhouse, S-Pulse have personality.

Now they have an Australian coach. Peter Cklamovski has worked with Postecoglou for years but the assistant has finally taken on head coach duties and, in theory, Shimizu are the perfect team.

There is no demand for titles but a desire to play something similar to the exciting and expansive Yokohama way. As spotlights go, it is warmer and less harsh than most.

The March 18 meeting between the two Australians promises to be something special, on and off the pitch, though an opening day loss at home to last season’s runners up FC Tokyo shows that there is much for Cklamovski to do. That was, however, always going to be the case as players adapt to the new boss.

Mitch Langerak also tasted defeat, though again to a strong opponent, as Nagoya Grampus lost 1-0 to Kashima Antlers.

The glory days of a decade ago have long gone but the former Melbourne Victory goalkeeper is starting a third season as number one.

Mid-table seems to be the sum of Nagoya’s ambitions but then in the unpredictable J.League, you never know.