J.League 2021: Top five things to know about the new Japanese football season

With more games and fewer days, an action-packed campaign awaits in the Tokyo Olympic Games year. Holders Kawasaki Frontale, who opened with a 2-0 victory on Friday, are favourites to retain title.

By Shintaro Kano

A rite of spring in Japan, like the cherry blossoms, the 2021 J.League men's football season is now officially underway.

Reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale kicked things off with a 2-0 over Yokohama F Marinos on Friday (26 February).

The other nine matches on the opening weekend will be held with crowds of up to 5,000 fans in any venue where the coronavirus state of emergency applies.

The following are the five toplines for the first full J.League season of the Covid era.

How the J.League 2021 season works

Due to the pandemic, none of the 18 teams in the J.League first division (J1) were relegated in 2020.

Counting the two sides promoted from J2, it means 20 clubs are battling it out for the silverware this season.

At the year's end, four will go down and two will come up to readjust the number back to an 18-team championship.

The league will break after the 10-11 July fixtures for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and resume 9 August, meaning more midweek games. The season ends 4 December.

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system will also be given a proper look in 2021 after the technology was used only for the first weekend of 2020 in light of the global outbreak.

And an extra substitution, on top of the usual five, will be allowed in the event of a suspected concussion.

The contenders

Kawasaki, winners of three of the last four league titles, are favourites to capture the crown once again.

Club legend Nakamura Kengo hung up his boots and midfield dynamo Morita Hidemasa took his trade to Portugal (CD Santa Clara) during the close season.

But Oniki Toru's men are still the team to beat, with the unmatched squad depth that helped them secure the last championship with four games to spare.

The biggest threat to them may come from the league's most storied club - Kashima Antlers, who have won the three major domestic titles a combined 19 times - behind the firepower of Ueda Ayase and Everaldo.

And at the other end of the table...

The 2020 J2 champions, Tokushima Vortis, could be in for a rude welcome back to the first division.

To prepare for the rigours of J1, Tokushima signed former Panathinaikos coach Dani Poyatos. But the Spaniard remains stuck in Barcelona with the Japanese borders closed and no telling when he will be able to meet his players in person.

The former Real Madrid youth coach will be managing his team remotely on Saturday, when they are away to Oita Trinita.

Cream of the Tokyo 2020 crop

You heard it here. Mitoma Kaoru.

By the time the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are over in August 2021, he might be ringing a lot of bells around the world.

The 23-year-old dribbler is all wizardry on the ball, making the league's Best XI in his first professional season in 2020.

Hopes will be even higher for Mitoma, born in Kawasaki and bred through the Frontale youth system.

And the lefty probably won't disappoint.

World's oldest goalscorer turns 54 at start of his latest top flight season

Last but not least, Friday is also the 54th birthday of Yokohama FC striker Miura Kazuyoshi, the oldest goalscorer of any major league in world football history.

If and when the former Japan international sets foot on the pitch, he will rewrite his own oldest appearance record.

The man they call King Kazu will also be trying to break Zico's J.League top-flight scoring mark.