Soccer-Trophy-winning Rodriguez lifts Urawa back among J1 League title favourites

By Michael Church

(Reuters) - Urawa Red Diamonds coach Ricardo Rodriguez has already steered the Saitama-based club to back-to-back trophy success, but when the new J1 League campaign begins this weekend the Spaniard will be looking to end a painful 16-season title drought.

Rodriguez's side won the Emperor's Cup in December before defeating reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 in the season-opening J-League Super Cup on Saturday to raise hopes of Urawa claiming the crown for the first time since 2006.

That is the only time Japan's best supported club have won the domestic title and Rodriguez has fostered hopes of a first triumph since Guido Buchwald's side saw off Yokohama F Marinos for their maiden success.

"What this team have achieved is just so impressive," said former Tokushima Vortis coach Rodriguez after the Super Cup win.

"I only arrived here a year ago and the players have shown an incredible level of professionalism and a great desire to improve.

"Winning two major trophies in the shape of the Emperor's Cup and the Japanese Super Cup are proof of that."

Urawa, who begin the campaign at Kyoto Sanga on Saturday, saw off a Kawasaki side that go into the new season having undergone significant changes since last term.

Key midfielders Ao Tanaka, Kaoru Mitoma and Reo Hatate, who has shone since joining Scottish team Celtic, have left, with Thailand's Chanathip Songkrasin among the new recruits.

Coach Toru Oniki steered Frontale to the title in four of the last five seasons and remains at the helm of a team that will go into this campaign as favourites despite the departures.

Leandro Damiao, last season's joint-top league scorer with Daizen Maeda, will continue to lead the line while Japan's Miki Yamane and Shogo Taniguchi provide stability at the back for a team that have dominated with a possession-based style.

Maeda's departure from Yokohama F Marinos in January to join his former manager Ange Postecoglou on a loan deal at Celtic has weakened the 2019 champions, who are going into their first full season under Australian coach Kevin Muscat.

Andres Iniesta helped Vissel Kobe to a third-place finish last season and the World Cup-winning Spaniard heads into his fourth campaign in Japan looking for further improvement.

Kobe bolstered their squad late last year with the addition of Japan strikers Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto in addition to former Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino as Vissel set their sights on a first J1 League title of their own.

(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Editing by Ken Ferris)

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