Star names with plenty to prove adds to intrigue surrounding 2023 J1 League season

Widely regarded as Southeast Asia's best player, Chanathip Songkrasin is a three-time AFF Suzuki Cup champion and Most Valuable Player with Thailand. AP Photo/Suhaimi Abdullah

Widely regarded as one of Asian football's most competitive domestic competition's, Japan's J1 League returns on Friday with familiar faces becoming the hunted once again.

With their previous title triumph coming back in 2019, Yokohama F. Marinos held their nerve on the final day of last season to claim a second crown in four years -- ending Kawasaki Frontale's two-year stranglehold on the trophy in the process.

The fact that both teams have shared champions status in the past six campaigns might hint at a duopoly in the J1 League, but the competitive nature of the competition means there is always a chance for outsiders to emerge as genuine contenders.

Prior to the start of the Frontale-Marinos dominance in 2017, three different champions were crowned in as many years in the form of Gamba Osaka, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Kashima Antlers, while the 2010s also saw the likes of Nagoya Grampus and Kashiwa Reysol reign supreme.

Ahead of the 2023 campaign, which kicks off on Friday evening with a tantalising encounter between Marinos and Frontale, here are five major questions ahead of the new season.

Are Marinos once again be the team to beat?

Although Marinos ultimately had to wait till the final day of last season to seal the title by a slim two-point margin over Frontale, it is hard to argue that they were not deserving champions.

By far the most dominant and consistent side throughout the year, they would have comfortably wrapped things up with plenty of time to spare if not for a late-season slump -- which saw them pick up just four points from a possible 12 before their final two outings.

Marinos have lost star man Tomoki Iwata to Scottish Premier League giants Celtic over the offseason as well as bidding farewell to 2019 J1 League Most Valuable Player Teruhito Nakagawa, although the latter did play a reduced role last term after taking time to recover from a long-term injury.

On paper, though, their squad is still brimming with quality, especially in their host of Brazilian imports led by Elber and Anderson Lopes, as well as seasoned campaigners like Ken Matsubara, Takuma Nishimura and Shinnosuke Hatanaka -- all Japan internationals.

Which of last season's challengers are the likeliest contenders?

It is difficult to look past Frontale being the likeliest to dethrone Marinos in 2023, especially considering they have won the J1 League in four of the past six years.

Their squad remains one of the strongest in the J1 League although they arguably just did not get enough out of their foreign contingent in 2022, with Brazilian star Leandro Damiao netting just five goals after hitting 23 the previous year.

Frontale will also be hoping for more from Thai import Chanathip Songkrasin (but more on that later) but do run the risk of being overly reliant on several evergreen but undoubtedly-aging stalwarts such as former LaLiga man Akihiro Ienaga.

As the club that nurtured the likes of Kaoru Mitoma and Ao Tanaka, who are now starring in Europe and featured prominently for Japan at last year's FIFA World Cup, it will be interesting to see if 2023 is a year of transition for Frontale that sees even greater responsibility fall on the likes of newly-appointed captain Kento Tachibanada, Asahi Sasaki and Daiya Tono.

Is redemption of the cards for Southeast Asian duo?

Having made the big move from Consadole Sapporo to Frontale ahead of last season in a bid to taste silverware with the perennial title contenders -- becoming the most-expensive domestic transfer in Japanese football history -- Thailand international Chanathip had a trying first year at Todoroki Athletics Stadium, where he showed glimpses of his undeniable quality but struggled to have a consistent impact.

Ever the consummate professional, Chanathip will be the first to admit he can have a greater contribution and he will have no shortage of determination to put his first-year troubles behind him.

Speaking of Southeast Asian stars looking to make amends in Japan, Vietnam ace Nguyen Cong Phuong will also have a second chance at proving his worth at newly-promoted Yokohama FC.

Once regarded as Vietnam's answer to Lionel Messi, Cong Phuong had a disappointing in the second-tier J2 League back in 2015 when he made just five appearances for Mito HollyHock, and now has the difficult task of stepping up to the top level for a team expected to be underdogs for most of the season.

Can returning Kagawa ignite inconsistent Cerezo?

While on the topic of famous names with something to prove, there is perhaps no bigger in the J1 League in 2023 than a certain former Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United star by the name of Shinji Kagawa.

Now 33, the silky-skilled playmaker called time on a 13-year stay in Europe at the end of January to rejoin boyhood club Cerezo Osaka, where he so brilliantly burst onto the scene as a teenager to set the stage for what has since been a glittering career that includes Premier League and Bundesliga title triumphs.

As a founding member of the J1 League, Cerezo have regularly promised at a breakthrough but are yet to taste glory in 28 years of the competition's existence -- even being relegated on three separate occasions.

Finishing as high as third as recently as in 2017, the arrival of Kagawa to feature alongside another former Europe-based gun in Hiroshi Kiyotake has the potential to galvanise the Osaka-based outfit to take the next step.

Will star-studded Vissel finally deliver on their promise?

From the rest of the teams that could potentially challenge, star-studded Vissel Kobe look to have everything needed to be a championship side.

And yet, that was exactly the same last season -- only for them to flirt dangerously with relegation before they eventually steered themselves to safety.

With Barcelona and Spain legend Andres Iniesta leading the way alongside prominent Japan internationals past and present such as Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Gotoku Sakai, anything less than a legitimate title bid in 2023 should be regarded as a failure.

Vissel have just lost too many key players to injury in recent times, although the impending return of another former Barcelona man in midfielder Sergi Samper will be a huge boost to their prospects.