The J-League top flight will kick off its 2023 season Friday when reigning champions Yokohama F Marinos face runners-up Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki Stadium in a clash of clubs who have dominated the title race in recent years.
Separated by just two points last year, the Kanagawa Prefecture rivals account for every J1 crown since 2017 between them and can be expected to once again lead the charge in the J-League's 30th anniversary season.
Having spoiled Frontale's "three-peat" bids in 2019 and last year, Marinos aim to go back-to-back as champions for the first time since 2004. Kevin Muscat's squad, however, must attempt the feat minus a number of the key players who helped bring the silverware back to Nissan Stadium last year.
Last season's league MVP, Tomoki Iwata, is now playing for previous Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou at Celtic, while the J-League Best XI goalkeeper, Yohei Takaoka, has taken his talents to Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps.
Attacking stalwart and 2019 league MVP Teruhito Nakagawa, meanwhile, will suit up in the blue and red of FC Tokyo, and Leo Ceara, who contributed 11 goals last term, has moved to Cerezo Osaka.
Marinos will have attacking continuity in the form of Anderson Lopes, fellow Brazilian Elber and Kota Mizunuma, while a bigger role looks to be in store for defensive midfielder Joel Chima Fujita, who is shaping up to be a pillar of Japan's 2024 Olympic side.
The champions only scraped past second-division Ventforet Kofu 2-1 in last Saturday's Super Cup and must make big improvements if they are to retain the J1 mantle, according to forward Takuma Nishimura, who struck the decisive goal at Tokyo's National Stadium.
"It was a lucky goal, and we didn't play well at all," Nishimura said. "We have to be much better."
Frontale have become accustomed to seeing star players head overseas during their run of four titles in six years, with several going on to become mainstays of European clubs and the Japan national team.
Samurai Blue defender and club captain, Shogo Taniguchi, became the latest prominent name to leave Todoroki Stadium, taking up an offer from Qatari side Al-Rayyan.
Manager Toru Oniki has tapped midfielder Kento Tachibanada to wear the captain's armband, and he will lead a squad relatively unchanged from the one that came within a single win of the championship last year.
Attacking linchpins Akihiro Ienaga, Leandro Damiao and Yu Kobayashi come in with fitness concerns, and Oniki may need younger players, such as Taisei Miyashiro, returning from loan, and Shin Yamada, yet to make his J1 debut, to step up early in the campaign.
"I want to humbly build the team back up from scratch," Oniki said at Kawasaki's season launch. "Recapturing the J-League title is our biggest goal."
While last year was ultimately a two-horse race for the title, several sides head into the season determined to break up the duopoly.
Third-place finishers Sanfrecce Hiroshima are on the hunt for more silverware after winning the Levain Cup and losing the Emperor's Cup final via penalty shootout in their first season under German manager Michael Skibbe.
Winners of a record eight league championships, Kashima Antlers will try to improve on their fourth-place finish and claim their first J1 crown since 2016 under the management of one of their former players, Daiki Iwamasa.
Entering their second season under Spanish manager Albert Puig, FC Tokyo hope the addition of Nakagawa can add further spark to a potent offense powered by Brazilians Adailton and Diego Oliveira.
Cerezo have welcomed back Shinji Kagawa, who began his career at the club 17 years ago before going on to win titles with Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United. The 33-year-old former Samurai Blue star will aim to show fans at Yodoko Sakura Stadium that he still has plenty left in the tank.
Spanish great Andres Iniesta is in the final year of his contract at Vissel Kobe, and it remains unclear if he will extend his time in Japan. While Kobe limped to 13th amid a spate of injuries last year, the aspiring glamor club will aim for loftier heights this season.
The J1 will this year comprise 18 teams for the last time before expanding to 20 in 2024. To that end, only one side will go down to the second division at the end of the season, while three teams will come up from the J2.
Albirex Niigata have returned to the J1 for the first time since 2017, while Yokohama FC are back after a one-year absence. Both clubs will lean heavily on the same cores who earned them promotion as they seek to cement their places back in the top flight.