This season’s Levain Cup starts on February 16, ahead of the J.League. It’s a tournament that has a different appeal when compared with the League; for example, more focus goes on the development of youngsters and there are clashes between J1 and J2 teams. Last year, Kawasaki Frontale lifted the cup for the first time. What kind of drama will unfold this year?
In match-day 1, title holders Kawasaki Frontale meet Shimizu S-Pulse in Group A. In addition to the new 4-3-3 formation, new signings, rookies Reo Hatate and Kaoru Mitoma, could generate an element of surprise for Kawasaki. Meanwhile, it will be the first match for Shimizu under new manager Peter Cklamovski. The former Yokohama F.Marinos assistant coach is working on a new style of football, and it will be interesting to see the performance of Tokyo Olympics generation’s Yugo Tatsuta.
In the same group, Nagoya Grampus host Kashima Antlers. In the second year under Massimo Ficcadenti, Nagoya are trying to build a more offensive style of football. Expectations are high for new signings Hiroyuki Abe and Sho Inagaki. Kashima joined the group stage after getting eliminated in the playoff round of the AFC Champions League. The disappointment was partly due to lack of preparation, but they now had two more weeks to train since the continental defeat. New manager Zago surely wants to show improvement in a team that saw a lot of changes during this past winter.
In Group B, Urawa Reds will face Vegalta Sendai at home. The biggest talking point for them is the new 4-4-2 system. Many fans are also interested to see what new striker Leonardo and rookie Hidetoshi Takeda can add to the team. Sendai begin a new challenge under new manager Takashi Kiyama. It is worrying that there are many injuries among their attackers, but they are looking for a positive result ahead of the opening of J1 League.
Cerezo Osaka has a home game against Matsumoto Yamaga. Last season’s best defense in J1 will provide a solid foundation in its second year under Miguel Ángel Lotina, while rookie Jun Nishikawa could add some new flavors to the team. Matsumoto Yamaga are the only J2 side in the competition this year. New foreign players like Augusto will be the key for the team that is making a new start under manager Keiichiro Nuno.
Group C sees Yokohama FC meet Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Yokoahama FC returned to J1 for the first time in 13 years and this is their first Levain Cup since 2007. Kazuyoshi Miura is likely to miss the opening match due to injury, but it will be interesting to see how well youngsters like Koki Saito and Yusuke Matsuo do against a J1 side. Meanwhile, one can expect continuity from Hiroshima after they kept most of the regular players from last season’s squad. Keisuke Osako, Hayato Araki and Tsukasa Morishima who impressed last season, are expected to take even more important roles this year.
Sagan Tosu will host Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. They are trying the 4-3-3 formation in an effort to become a more attack-minded team. Tomoya Koyamatsu, who joined from Kyoto Sanga FC, could be a key player. Sapporo will kick off this year’s Levain Cup campaign with even stronger determination after losing in the final last year. The third season under Mihailo Petrovic sees no significant change, but university graduates such as Shunta Tanaka and Takuro Kaneko could bring a breath of fresh air into the team.
In Group D, Shonan Bellmare will face Oita Trinita. It could be a hard-fought game between two teams willing to play 90 minutes at high intensity. The performance of the new comers, Yuto Iwasaki and Akimi Barada for Shonan and Kei Chinen and Daiki Watari for Oita, could be an important factor.
Finally, the clash between Gamba Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol is one of the big matches of the opening day. Since both teams boast powerful attackers in Takashi Usami, on one side, and Olunga and Cristiano on the other, this could turn into an exciting goal show. One should also keep an eye on the many youngsters of the Tokyo Olympics generation; Gamba’s Yuya Fukuda and Mizuki Ichimaru, and Kashiwa’s Taiyo Koga and Takuma Ominami.