Football: Forlan restores glamour to frumpy J-League

TOKYO (AFP) - Uruguay striker Diego Forlan takes centre-stage, as Cerezo Osaka begin the new J-League season looking to claim the scalp of twice-defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday.

Former Manchester United and Atletico Madrid forward Forlan joined Cerezo from Brazil's Internacional in January, restoring a sheen of glamour to a league that had grown increasingly austere since its 1990s heyday, when big-money deals brought Gary Lineker, Dunga and Dragan Stojkovic to Japan.

The 34-year-old Forlan, voted best player of the 2010 World Cup, has joined Cerezo on an estimated US$5.9 million (S$7.5 million) a year, instantly transforming a club that has never won the title and finished fourth last year into pre-season favourites.

Cerezo manager Ranko Popovic told AFP that playing in Japan was anything but a retirement gig for Forlan, who will expect to be in Uruguay's World Cup squad later this year.

"Forlan has come here to do his best," the Serb said. "I have seen the fire in his eyes to play and achieve something. This is what we need, because without Forlan we are a really young team."

Cerezo also boast Japan internationals Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi in their squad, but Sanfrecce will be a tough nut to crack after becoming the first team to retain the J-League title since 2009.

Sanfrecce overhauled a five-point deficit with two games remaining to pip Yokohama F. Marinos to the title on the final day, and manager Hajime Moriyasu is confident his side can continue where they left off in Saturday's opener away to Cerezo.

"The aim is to win the title for a third straight year," said Moriyasu, who has captured the championship in both years since becoming a manager.

"We have proved that we are able to win it over the past two years, but it will be difficult. We're the champions and we have to wear that with pride."

Marinos, with reigning player of the year Shunsuke Nakamura, should also have a say in the destination of the title having beaten Sanfrecce in last season's Emperor's Cup final to claim their first silverware since 2004.

"The AFC Champions League and the J-League start this week, so every day will be tough," said the 35-year-old ex-Celtic favourite. "But we'll give it our best shot."

Kawasaki Frontale will also pose a threat after league top-scorer Yoshito Okubo's 26 goals helped them finish third last season, while former Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds have reinforced with the signing of Japan international Tadanari Lee from Southampton.

Seven-time champions Kashima Antlers have lost star striker Yuya Osako to Germany's 1860 Munich, FC Tokyo have brought in Italian manager Massimo Ficcadenti to replace the Cerezo-bound Popovic, and Vegalta Sendai also have a new man in charge with Australian Graham Arnold joining from A-League side Central Coast Mariners.

"Everyone knows the J-League is the biggest professional league in Asia," said Arnold. "A lot of Australian players have played over here and they've always gone home with a positive report. Everyone looks at it with a lot of respect."

Former champions Gamba Osaka could spring a surprise, having bounced back from a shock relegation in 2012 to clinch promotion at the first time of asking. And with four different teams winning the title over the past five seasons, anything is possible.

"We're confident we can retain the title, but the thing about the J-League is that any team can win it," said Sanfrecce midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama.

The J-League has also expanded this season to include a third division, which begins on March 9.

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