By Dan Orlowitz
|THE 2013 J-LEAGUE
J1, the top flight, has recently become known for its wide-open competition with four different clubs having won the last four seasons. While Japan regularly sends four clubs to compete in the Asian Champions League, the country has experienced a continental title drought since since Gamba Osaka won in 2008.
In addition to the league, first-division teams will contest the J-League Cup from March through early November. The Emperor's Cup, open to all of Japan's professional, amateur, and scholastic clubs, takes place in the latter half of the year and concludes on New Year's Day.
|TEAMS TO WATCH
2006 league champions Urawa Reds, who also won the 2007 ACL, were perhaps the most ambitious club in terms of off-season acquisitions. In addition to Moriwaki, the Reds picked up Vegalta midfielder Kunimitsu Sekiguchi and Kashima Antlers striker Shinzo Kuroki.
Antlers, who won three straight league titles between 2007 and 2009, will themselves be looking to improve on their recent league form despite having won the last two J-League Cups. They'll be manager this year by Toninho Cerezo, who in his first stint at the Ibaraki outfit claimed a rare treble.
One team that casual observers will be surprised to see missing from the table are Gamba Osaka, who made their splash on the global stage in 2008 by placing third in the Fifa Club World Cup. The Yasuhito Endo-led outfit were relegated after ending last season in 17th place, and are heavy favourites to capture the J2 and make a swift return to J1. Visitors to the western city will still have a chance to catch a top-flight team as rivals Cerezo managed to avoid the drop.
|PLAYERS TO WATCH|
With a departure for Europe becoming all but expected for Japan's Under-23 players, this year the focus could be on players born in 1990 and 1991. Antlers' Yuya Osako, Cerezo's Yochiro Kakitani and Takahiro Ogihara, FC Tokyo's Keigo Higashi, and are among the potential Samurai who could travel west during the summer break.
English fans will surely keep a close eye on Hideki Ishige, the 2011 Asian Young Player of the Year who this winter trained with Manchester City and was rumoured to be undergoing a trial. The 18-year-old midfielder did not score in 12 appearances last year, but the club has expressed its confidence in the starlet by awarding him the No. 8 shirt.
This year's J-League will offer a distinctly Korean flavour as well, with 53 South Korean players participating in the competition. With nearly half of South Korea’s bronze-winning Olympic team having played in Japan, the league can be said to be producing young Korean talent as readily as it prepares the next generation of Japanese stars.
|MATCHES TO WATCH
The summer break will provide plenty of fireworks as well. After several years of being shunned in favour of other Asian countries, Japan will again host some big summer friendlies as Shinji Kagawa's Manchester United come to play against his former club Cerezo as well as Yokohama F. Marinos. With clubs such as Arsenal and Inter reportedly considering their own Japan tour, fans may have plenty of chances to see how the J-League stacks up against the world's best.