J.League Preview: Marinos eye fresh start, Sanfrecce begin title defence
Three defeats from their final four matches saw the championship slip from their grasp as Sanfrecce Hiroshima claimed last-day glory with a 2-0 victory at Kashima Antlers to defend their Japanese top-flight crown.
Hajime Moriyasu's men continued to haunt Marinos by beating them in the Super Cup on Saturday, but the reigning champions face a tricky trip to fellow AFC Champions League outfit Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, while Yasuhiro Higuchi's charges have to wait until Sunday before hosting Omiya Ardija.
The 2013 campaign underlined the competitive nature of the division as just five points separated the top six sides, and the new season promises to serve up another closely fought battle for honours.
Cerezo completed the most eye-catching piece of transfer business of the close-season by signing Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, who will aim to boost an attacking force that finished with only the seventh-highest goals tally last term.
A trio of promoted clubs will be seeking to announce themselves in style, with J.League Division Two champions Gamba Osaka entertaining an Urawa Reds side who slipped from title contenders to sixth place last season after taking just one point from their final four outings.
Vissel Kobe were the second-tier runners up and they travel to Kawasaki Frontale, who begun their Champions League campaign with a 1-0 win over Guizhou Renhe on Wednesday.
Play-off victors Tokushima Vortis kick off their maiden season in the top division with an away fixture versus Sagan Tosu, themselves embarking on just their third term at this level.
The issue of relegation was settled in a far more straightforward manner last year, with the bottom three - Oita Trinita, Jubilo Iwata and Shonan Bellmare - finding themselves cut adrift.
And so, although Ventforet Kofu finished just one place above the drop zone, they collected 12 more points than 16th-placed Shonan.
Nonetheless, a meagre haul of just 37 points from 35 games marked an undistinguished return to the J.League - and they will hope for an altogether more productive season, with a home match against Kashima Antlers first up.
Elsewhere, Vegalta Sendai host Albirex Niigata, Nagoya Grampus play Shimizu S-Pulse, and Toyko visit Kashiwa Reysol.