East Asia Japan

OPINION: The 2020 J.League 1 Season Prediction (5-1)

With the 2020 J.League 1 season kicking-off on February 21st, Football Tribe Asia’s Krishna Sadhana took the unenviable task of predicting how the league table would look like come the end of the season. For the next three days starting from Tuesday, Krishna will give his prediction on how the J1 teams would fare in 2020, which includes relegation, cup wins, and AFC Champions League qualification.

For today, in the final part of this 3-part prediction series, Krishna will predict the teams that will finish within the top five places in the league, which, of course, includes the league champions! Sit back and enjoy the predictions that may or may not come true.

DISCLAIMER: The following slideshow is an opinion piece and inevitably not all of us would agree with the predictions written here. Feel free to share your thoughts on what’s your 2020 J1 prediction through our Facebook and Twitter!

5. Cerezo Osaka

The pink side of Osaka, Cerezo had an okay 2019 campaign, despite a rather stuttering start to the season that saw them as low as 14th at one point. The boys in cherry blossom soon found their feet quickly though and relegation was never a threat for Cerezo, as they spent the majority of the season in mid-table with a late surge at the end of the season bringing them to the fringes of the title race. Cerezo didn't have the form to sustain that surge though but they should be satisfied with a 5th place finish.

Squad-wise, head coach Miguel Angel Lotina should have the luxury of bringing out his preferred guns once again for 2020, as most of his key players are still loyal to the club. The only notable departures were that of midfielder Kota Mizunuma, who went to reigning J.League 1 champions Yokohama F. Marinos, and Brazilian fellow midfielder Souza, who departed the J1 for the Saudi Professional League with Al-Ettifaq. Other than those two, key players such as Matej Jonjic, Riku Matsuda, Hiroaki Okuno, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Naoyuki Fujita and Yoichiro Kakitani were retained, while Brazilian striker Bruno Mendes, on loan from Uruguayan side Deportivo Maldonado, had his loan contract extended for another season. Replacing Souza in the midfield for Cerezo is fellow Brazilian Lucas Mineiro, who arrived on loan from Chapecoense. Cerezo also brought in two talented Japanese players from the Belgian top-flight, with Yuta Koike, previously of Kashima Antlers, coming in from Sint-Truiden, while Yuta Toyokawa, another former Kashima player, arrives at the Nagai Stadium from KAS Eupen.

With a relatively unaltered squad, I would predict that Cerezo would pretty much deliver more of the same in 2020 - a solid top-half finish, not threatening the title race yet displaying this degree of superiority over the teams in both the middle and lower halves of the table. Let's just hope that Lotina's men didn't have to endure another stuttering start to the season, and they might produce a stronger performance than 2019!

Last season: 5th

Player to watch: With 32 league appearances and 7 goals, it's easy to say that Hiroaki Okuno was Cerezo's standout man last year. With Kota Mizunuma now gone, Hiroaki would now have his chance to stamp his mark as Cerezo's midfield general, dictating play and feeding Bruno Mendes in the attacking line, while at the same time carving out a few offensive chances of his own.

4. Kawasaki Frontale

Champions of Japan from 2017 to 2018, Toru Oniki's Kawasaki saw their dominance over domestic football ended by an excellent Yokohama side last year. It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Kanagawa Prefecture-based side though, as they managed to nab the 2019 J.League Cup title and the 2019 Japanese Super Cup, meaning that despite losing their 2-year grip on the J1 title, Kawasaki still ended the year in a high with two more titles for the trophy cabinet. They weren't doing badly throughout 2019 themselves - if only Yokohama, FC Tokyo, and Kashima slipped up at the same time, Kawasaki might have a good chance of nabbing a third straight J1 title. Sadly Kawasaki's slow start to the season coupled with a late season slump meant that Kanagawa rivals Yokohama are the ones lifting the J1 trophy at the end of the 2019 season - made more painful by the fact that Yokohama pretty much sealed their league title at Kawasaki's own backyard with a ruthless 4-1 victory.

Head coach Oniki would be relieved that a good majority of his key players are staying at the Todoroki Athletics Stadium for the upcoming 2020 season, bar Hiroyuki Abe who made the switch to Nagoya Grampus during the off-season. The Kawasaki side of 2019 was a decent team - they did gave Frank Lampard his first ever defeat as Chelsea manager with a shock 1-0 friendly win in Yokohama last summer. And apart from Abe, players such as Yu Kobayashi, Manabu Saito, Akihiro Ienaga, Leandro Damiao, Shogo Taniguchi and Tatsuya Hasegawa are raring to go for the 2020 season. Though, Oniki and fans alike would be disappointed that club legend Kengo Nakamura would sit out most of 2020 due to a severe knee injury that he got last year.

Once again I would be throwing Kawasaki into the title mix - they have the players, the quality, and the head coach to challenge for honors in 2020. Although, they might come up short - partly because of the next three teams simply had more resources, more form to build up upon, and more desire for glory. Not that I say Kawasaki lacked any of those things, they'll try their best, but I'm afraid the three teams that I'll mention after this are slightly more better than them. So yeah, basically a repeat of last season is on the cards here.

Last season: 4th

Player to watch: He may be 32-years old, but make no mistake, Yu Kobayashi's a very deadly finisher up front for Kawasaki. Apart from a brief loan spell at Mito HollyHock early in his career, Yu has pretty much spent his entire life as a professional footballer with Kawasaki, making more than 200 appearances for the club and scoring a plethora of goals along the way. Last season saw Yu scoring 13 times for Kawasaki and I'm expecting him to bang in more goals on a regular basis in 2020.

3. FC Tokyo (Emperor's Cup winners)

2019 has been a year to remember and forget for FC Tokyo fans. A year to remember because for the first time in a long while or even ever, FC Tokyo became genuine J1 title contenders, with the capital side finishing no higher than 4th in their history prior to 2019. A year to forget, because FC Tokyo absolutely bottled it. They had the advantage in the title race for a while, were 1st for a good part of the season, but a loss of form during the final stretch of the season, coupled with Yokohama smashing in wins after wins at the same time, meant that a supposedly winner-takes-all match in Yokohama on the final day of the season turned into a coronation party for the hosts, as Yokohama steamrolled FC Tokyo 3-0 to clinch the 2019 J1 title.

But now, FC Tokyo are hungry for more. The painful memory of having their maiden J1 title snatched away from underneath their noses would surely motivate Kenta Hasegawa's Gasmen to do one better this season, and I would've easily predicted them to finally achieve their J1 dreams this season. However, there are two problems - Yokohama are getting better and better and the team that I predict will finish second on the table had just won two titles on a bounce and are ferociously hungry for more. So I think, unfortunately, that FC Tokyo will once again come up short and finish 3rd...although they will use that determination of theirs to cruise past the Emperor's Cup and clinch the national cup title for the 2020 edition. Because let's face it - a team of FC Tokyo's quality shouldn't have gone empty-handed last season. At least this time out, I'm predicting that they'll at least get something as a merit to their efforts.

To show that they're still capable of threatening in a title race, FC Tokyo have retained a huge majority of players from their near-miss in 2019. Players such as Sei Muroya, Diego Oliveira, Masato Morishige, Akihiro Hayashi, Hirotaka Mita, Kento Hashimoto and Yojiro Takahagi are raring to go at another shot of glory in 2020, however Kensuke Nagai, who scored 9 times in FC Tokyo's 2019 campaign, might have to sit out the first few matches of the season due to injury.  Despite that, the capital side won't have any shortages in their attacking sector, having received a significant boost in the form of Adailton, easily Jubilo Iwata's most dangerous player during their 2019 relegation campaign. Also joining FC Tokyo is Lebanese international Joan Oumari, who had J1 experience with both Sagan Tosu and Vissel Kobe. It is hoped that Oumari would provide some significant cover for FC Tokyo's defense.

With most if not all of their key players staying on and with the addition of two decent foreigners to the squad, I believe that FC Tokyo will once again dive head-first into the torrid waters that is the title race. But we'll see whether they'll survive the currents and achieve glory...or bottle it again just like last year.

Last season: 2nd

Player to watch: With 14 goals to his name in 33 league appearances, Diego Oliveira has etched himself as FC Tokyo's talisman last year. I'm expecting him to perform in a starring role for the Gasmen once again, however while Kensuke Nagai's injury has robbed him of a reliable partner, Adailton should cover for Nagai until his recovery quite decently. And should Nagai make his recovery during the season, Hasegawa will be spoiled by the possibility of playing Oliveira, Adailton, and Nagai together as a deadly attacking threesome.

2. Vissel Kobe (possible AFC Champions League winners?)

I've done it again. I've predicted a top-half finish once again for Vissel, but unlike the last time I did these predictions with my friends, I did not outright say that Vissel will immediately win the league. Oh how that prediction backfired on me as they finished 8th and had a shocker of a season despite having the likes of Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski, David Villa, Sergei Samper, and Thomas Vermaelen. But hey, at least they've won the 2019 Emperor's Cup.

Right, so 2nd place for Vissel. I guess it's kinda realistic unlike how I confidently say that Vissel will dominate the league to my friends after they had signed Iniesta last year. Realistic in the sense that Vissel have finally got themselves the platform to build on to achieve the ambitious dreams of their owners, e-commerce giants Rakuten. The Kobe-based team followed up from their 2019 Emperor's Cup win by winning the 2020 Japanese Super Cup, beating 2019 J1 champions Yokohama on penalties.  Usually, for ambitious teams that have received heavy investment such as Vissel, cup wins are the start of a period of glory that saw titles after titles being won. Manchester City, for example, won their first title after the Sheikh Mansour takeover by winning the 2011 FA Cup, and that opened the gates for more titles - 4 Premier Leagues, another FA Cup, four League Cups, and three Community Shields. I see parallels between City's ambitions with Vissel's, and even though I don't count on them to win the league just yet (because Yokohama's just that good), I think they'll speak volumes in the cup competitions. A maiden AFC Champions League title in their debut season in Asia's premier club competition? It's possible. But the road to glory's going to be tough for Thorsten Fink's men.

Speaking about Thorsten Fink, his presence in the team is really what finally set the gears in Rakuten's ambitious project into motion. Underneath Fink's guidance, Vissel has won 17 of their last 27 matches, which includes both the Emperor's Cup and the Japanese Super Cup wins. It seems that in Fink, Rakuten has finally found the man to oversee their ambitious project.

Fink's presence is also what made me confident enough to put Vissel in 2nd place despite losing both Villa to retirement and Podolski to Turkish Super Lig side Antalyaspor. The two superstar strikers' replacement is Brazilian Douglas, a well-renowned goal-getter in the J.League and the talisman for Shimizu S-Pulse last season. Douglas has been tried and tested a lot in the Japanese top flight, meaning that he should easily replace the void left by both Villa and Podolski. Iniesta, Samper, and Vermaelen are still in the club for 2020, while quality local players such as Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gotoku Sakai, Daigo Nishi, Keijiro Ogawa, Noriaki Fujimoto, Junya Tanaka, and the impressive Kyogo Furuhashi are ready to lit up the 2020 J1 season.

I'm expecting big things for Vissel in 2020. I predict that this year will finally be the year that they threw themselves into the mix of the title race, taking on both Yokohama and FC Tokyo as well as Kawasaki for the title of being the best in Japan. And also, as I mentioned earlier, they might try and poach for the big prize that is the ACL in their first try, but it's going to be a huge challenge for this squad. But knowing Fink and his men, they'll relish this challenge very much.

Last season: 8th

Player to watch: Saying Andres Iniesta here will be the easy and mainstream answer since the FC Barcelona legend, despite his aging legs, is still showing sparks of class that made him the formidable maestro that he was with the Catalans. But no, let's go for the true standout star of Vissel from 2019 - Kyogo Furuhashi. The former FC Gifu player has been a revelation for Vissel in 2019, scoring 10 times and becoming the club's second top scorer behind Villa. Furuhashi has been impressive throughout 2019, earning himself a call-up to Hajime Moriyasu's Japan national team setup, and he should continue where he had left off in 2020. Be on the lookout for this amazing talent!

1. Yokohama F. Marinos (second straight title)

Of course, it just had to be them right? Kawasaki Frontale of 2017-18 have proven that defending your title in the J1, albeit challenging, is something that is very possible to be done, and I can see Ange Postecoglou's Yokohama side repeating their J1 title heroics of 2019 with another J1 title in 2020. The ingredients are there - Ange's still at the helm for 2020 and he has done a remarkable job with Yokohama so far, key players such as Marcos Junior, Erik Lima, Teruhito Nakagawa, Takuya Kida, Keita Endo, Edigar Junio, and Theerathon Bunmathan are still with the club, and the two key additions to the squad, Ado Onaiwu and Kota Mizunuma, would provide Yokohama's attack and midfield with more edge.

Extending Erik's and Edigar's loan deals and turning the loan deals of Thiago Martins and Theerathon into permanent ones were four vital maneuvers that Yokohama had done in the pre-season transfer market, thus securing the availability of four of their key players. Onaiwu, who had impressed in spells at both Renofa Yamaguchi and Oita Trinita, should provide some adequate cover for either Erik or Teruhito, while Kota, who was brought in from Cerezo Osaka, would add more steel to the Yokohama midfield. The fact that Yokohama hadn't lost anyone of significant importance during the off-season meant that they're just growing stronger and stronger, with Rikuto Hirose to Kashima Antlers being the most notable exit from the reigning league champions.

Sure, Yokohama lost the Japanese Super Cup to Vissel, but they lost it on penalties, a 50-50 game of chance in football, and they did well to rally back three times after going behind. Should my predictions come true, we could see a two-horse battle between Yokohama and Vissel for the league title, with FC Tokyo and Kawasaki being thrown into the mix as title pretenders as well. It's going to be a long, hard season for Yokohama, and I can see the title race being more tighter than the one we had last year. But Ange's men should do well in retaining their league title in 2020, as if they keep doing smart signings in the transfer market and retain their best players like this, they might establish a brand new footballing dynasty in Japan.

Last season: 1st (champions)

Player to watch: Like Consadole yesterday, it's more of "players to watch" if we're talking about Yokohama here. Both Teruhito Nakagawa and Marcos Junior combined together to score a total of 30 J1 goals in 2019, making them the deadliest partnership in the league. I'm hoping for more chemistry from these two because when they're on the top of their game, they'll rip any defenses into pieces like it's made out of paper. Expect a boatload of goals from both Nakagawa and Junior in the upcoming 2020 season!