Kewell's Yokohama spearhead challengers to champions Kobe in J-League

Kewell's Yokohama spearhead challengers to champions Kobe in J-League

© AFP 2022
February 22, 2024 at 8:07 AM
Vissel Kobe won the J-League last season for the first time
Vissel Kobe won the J-League last season for the first time. Photo: STR / JIJI PRESS/AFP
Source: AFP

Harry Kewell's Yokohama F-Marinos and Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds spearhead the teams looking to dethrone title-holders Vissel Kobe when Japan's J-League kicks off on Friday.

Former Leeds and Liverpool forward Kewell took over at Yokohama after fellow Australian Kevin Muscat left following last season's runner-up finish.

Kewell lifted the 2005 Champions League with Liverpool and won 58 caps for Australia, appearing at two World Cups.

But he has never reached the same heights as a manager in lower-league English football with Crawley Town, Notts County, Oldham and Barnet.

The 45-year-old has however inherited one of the strongest squads in the J-League thanks to the work of Muscat and his predecessor Ange Postecoglou, now of Tottenham.

"There are still areas that we need to work on but I can't fault my players with the work ethic that they've shown from day one," Kewell said after taking Yokohama into the Asian Champions League quarter-finals this week.

"They've taken it with a smile on their face.

"We demand a lot, especially in training, because I'm a firm believer that you have to be able to perform at a good level in training to perform at a top level in games."

Yokohama finished a distant seven points adrift of last season's champions Kobe, who won their first title five months after Spanish veteran Andres Iniesta left the club.

Iniesta joined Kobe in 2018 and won the domestic Emperor's Cup a year later, but he made only a handful of appearances last season before leaving in the summer.

Stacked full of former Japan internationals and led by last season's J-League player of the year Yuya Osako, Kobe start as favourites to defend their crown.

"We won the title last season but the players and coaching staff still aren't satisfied," Osako said after extending his contract with the club this month.

Expanded competition

Urawa beat Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal last year to win their third Asian Champions League but they have only lifted the J-League trophy once.

Now under former Norway coach Per-Mathias Hogmo, Urawa start their campaign away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the team that pipped them to third place last season.

Hiroshima, coached by the German Michael Skibbe, will host Urawa in their new stadium built near the city's atomic bomb memorial park.

Kawasaki Frontale meanwhile are looking to win their fifth J-League title in eight years after a disappointing eighth-place finish last season.

"We have more players that we can rely on now," coach Toru Oniki said after Kawasaki beat Kobe 1-0 in last week's curtain-raising Super Cup game.

Kashima Antlers, champions a record eight times, and Nagoya Grampus are also likely to be in title contention.

Two-time champions Tokyo Verdy are back in the top flight for the first time since 2008.

Verdy were the most popular team in Japan when the J-League kicked off in the early 1990s thanks to Japanese stars such as Kazuyoshi "Kazu" Miura.

Verdy are joined by fellow Tokyo club Machida Zelvia, who are playing in the top flight for the first time.

The J-League first division has expanded from 18 to 20 teams this season.

© AFP 2022 photo
© AFP 2022