February 25, 2006: Can the J.League ever again match the drama of last season's final day, when Cerezo Osaka lost the championship and Gamba Osaka won it, all in the space of a few crazy seconds?
It's unlikely we will go into the last round of games with five teams still in with a chance of finishing on top, but there are no signs that one "super team" -- such as Chelsea in England, Juventus in Italy, Barcelona in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany -- will run away with the title in a one-horse race.
Chatting to JEF United manager Ivica Osim the other day, he feels that eight or nine teams are capable of playing at a consistently high level, and that three or four will be contesting the championship.
Last season, only one point separated the top five, with Gamba winning on 60 points and Reds, Antlers, JEF and Cerezo following on 59.
This season, however, two more former champions will be in the hunt.
"Now, Yokohama and Jubilo will play very strong," said Osim. "This is logical."
Another manager who agrees with Osim is Akira Nishino. He feels that Reds and Marinos will be the biggest threat to his Gamba team this year.
Nishino felt that Marinos and also Jubilo were badly affected last season by their commitments in the Asian Champions League. This gives both teams an extra six games in the group, and lots of travel around the eastern half of the vast continent for midweek games.
There is no doubt these engagements take their toll, physically and mentally, and I am sure Marinos manager Takeshi Okada will be relieved not to have to play in the Champions League this season. Even though the reward for winning the ACL is a place in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December, Okada would prefer to qualify for the FIFA event by winning the J.League title this season. Much less stress and hassle!
Although I have tipped Gamba to win the league in the past, I will not be doing this time.
They also have Champions League commitments, but, more than that, they will not have Araujo or Oguro, who scored a staggering 49 goals between them last season.
It was Gamba's attack that won them the league, not their defence, and I don't think the Magno Alves-Bando-Fernandinho strikeforce will be anywhere near as productive as the 2005 line-up. Maybe the defence will be tighter, though, with Kaji on the right and Myojin closing down the centre of midfield.
Reds are the, well, red-hot favourites to take the title, with Ono and Washington in the team, plus Soma and Kurobe joining the squad.
But, like Osim says, I don't think one team will run away with it.