Football: J-League rollercoaster rumbles into action

Sanfrecce Hiroshima face a tough start to their J-League title defence on Saturday -- and they will be aware that in one of Asia's toughest leagues, a winning pedigree is no guarantee of success.

Hiroshima, who won Japan's traditional curtain-raiser, the Super Cup, 1-0 against Kashiwa Reysol last week, get down to league business against Urawa Red Diamonds, who are led by former Sanfrecce coach Mihailo Petrovic.

"Because we won the opening game last season, we got off to a good start," said Japan international striker Hisato Sato, who scored the Super Cup winner and was named 2012 player of the year after his 22 goals in 34 games.

"Although we won the (league) title, that was in 2012. We haven't become very much stronger yet. We still have a lot of room to improve as a team and as individuals.

"We are not going to start the season as the defending champions. We will start as challengers again," added Sato, who was also the joint top scorer at the Club World Cup in December.

However, there are no out-and-out favourites this year -- and recent experience shows why.

Kashiwa, who won in 2011 a year after being promoted, finished a disappointing sixth last year. Nagoya Grampus, champions in 2010, were runners-up in 2011 but dropped to seventh last year.

And Gamba Osaka, who won the AFC Champions League as recently as 2008, were relegated last season, again highlighting the difficulty of staying at the top of Japanese football.

Hiroshima, former Asian champions Urawa, Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa are all among the favourites, but all also have the difficulty of competing in the AFC Champions League, which involves long away trips mid-week.

On Saturday, Hiroshima face an Urawa team featuring three of their former players -- Ryota Moriwaki, Tomoaki Makino and Yosuke Kashiwagi -- who played under Petrovic, plus striker Shinzo Koroki, who arrives from Kashima Antlers.

"We are ready to show better football than we did last year by improving our accuracy. We are going to do what we've continued to work on," said Petrovic.

Kashiwa have obtained Brazilian striker Cleo from Guangzhou Evergrande, who returned to China this week to score the winner in his new club's 1-0 AFC Champions League victory over Guizhou Renhe.

"We strengthened the team as we had planned," said Kashiwa's Brazilian coach Nelsinho. "Our target is to win all the titles on offer."

Sendai coach Makoto Teguramori, who guided his side to second place, their best ever result, last year, said he plans to form a different style for the J-League and the Champions League.

"I'm going to vary our play widely. We have an ideal style to fight in the J-League, but it's sometimes dangerous in the Champions League if we stick to it. We need to show our (different) style for the Champions League," Teguramori said.

On Saturday, Sendai will play Ventforet Kofu, while Nagoya will take on Jubilo Iwata and Kashima face Sagan Tosu. Kashiwa will meet Kawasaki Frontale at home on Sunday.