Right, thats all my plugs out of the way.
Continuity and DepthThose are the two words that I believe Ranko Popovic stuck to when constructing his squad for his second season in charge. With the exception of Yohei Kajiyama, who wanted to take his chances in Europe, and fair play to him, and Kenta Mukuhara, who I really rate and was surprised to see go on loan to Cerezo Osaka, all of our important players from 2012 have been kept on (sorry Roswell, but that definition didn't apply to you anymore).
As we all know Keigo Higashi was signed as a direct replacement for Kajiyama, and the early signs have been promising: his first-time through ball for Aria's winner in the friendly against Jeju United was superb; and he got on the scoresheet himself in the draw against Sendai last Tuesday. With Nema waiting in the wings I believe the loss of Casual can be sufficiently overcome.
Elsewhere on the park we are pretty much set, though either Jang Hyun Soo or Kenichi Kaga will have to display a greater level of consistency in central defence alongside new captain Masato Morishige, and there's a debate to be had on whether Takuji Yonemoto or Aria Hasegawa will be the regular partner for Hideto Takahashi in centre mid. We might see the more tenacious Yonemoto play mostly away from home, when we tend not to dominate possession as much; though the evidence from last year is that when he isn't suspended, Aria WILL start (in XI for all 28 games he was available for in 2012), either centrally or out on a flank.
On the second of those key words, have a look at how we shape up in each position with a formation I drew on this11.com (if it doesn't load properly you can view the web version here):
While there's obviously a lot of youth in that second XI (white kit), it also contains established (though not outstanding) J1 players like Kazuma Watanabe, Aria, Kenichi Kaga and Hitoshi Shiota, and it doesn't include the likes of Sota Hirayama, Yohei Hayashi, Yohei Otake and Kento Hashimoto, who could all play a part at some stage this year. On top of those names Casual is of course a possibility to come back at the end of June, too, further strengthening us through the middle.
The addition of Tadanari Lee instantly changed my expectations for the upcoming season. I went from thinking top six was an outside chance, with us relying on Lucas' aging legs and the inconsistent Watanabe to get us goals, to believing that we could crack the top four with a top class J1 striker leading the line. Lee scored 15 goals for Hiroshima just two years ago, and we've only had two players get that many in the last eight seasons (Lucas scored 18 in 2006 in his first stint at the club, and Naohiro Ishikawa banged in 15 in his magical 2009 season).
He offers us a different type of threat to our two main incumbents up front, and ironically Casual might've moved on at the right time for Lee, as Higashi will move the ball on quicker than our former captain ever did, allowing Lee to play on the shoulder of the last defender more. Lucas and Watanabe are more hold-the-ball-up types, but Lee's movement and pace should allow him to play closer to goal, and providing he settles relatively quickly, he could easily match his 2011 goal mark.
The elephant in the room is obviously the possibility that Lee could return to Southampton at the end of June, but if he finds his feet quickly, bangs a few goals in and returns to national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni's plans, then I believe he'll see the sense in staying for the full year, and the Saints staying up in the Premier League would certainly help us out in that regard, as it appears they don't believe he's physically equipped to be a regular in the Prem. They could of course move him on elsewhere, but if he's happy with us then we should be able to sign him permanently at the end of his loan.
Apart from Lee, Hiroki Kawano is another player who could take us to the next level, and push us up the table. The wee wing wizard was a non-factor for most of last season, as injuries totally ruined his year, but he's been the stand-out player throughout preseason, and his trickery and burst of pace will cause problems for even the sternest of J1 defences. All that remains now is for the manager to put his faith in Kawano, as it seems to me he's been thought of in a similar way to Otake: a flair player who perhaps doesn't do enough the other way to warrant a regular spot in the first team.
With four of our first six games away, including trips to Yokohama and Sendai, I don't think we'll be charging out of the gates, but if we are hard to beat on the road, and take our chances at home, then we'll hopefully start well, and if we can reach the 'mid-season break' (after Matchday 13) in or around the top six then we are set up perfectly for the second half and the end of the season, as five of our last seven are at home.
There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before then of course, and it all starts on Saturday night in Oita, before we host Kashiwa on March the 9th.