Kashiwa Reysol launch the defence of their J-League crown this weekend as a confident Nagoya Grampus seek to wrest back the title they lost by a single point last season.
Kashiwa upset the established powers of Japanese football in 2011, becoming the first team to win the J-League in their first season after promotion and denying Nagoya a second consecutive title.
Kashiwa's Brazilian coach Nelsinho anticipates a tough season balancing J-League commitments with a first appearance in the AFC Champions League.
"I expect that it will be a difficult season in 2012 like we had last year," said Nelsinho, who has the dangerous Brazilian duo of Jorge Wagner and 2011 Player of the Year Leandro Domingues at his disposal.
"The J-League is a difficult tournament for all the teams every year," added Nelsinho, whose side got off to a poor start in Asia's top club competition in midweek when they lost their opener to Thailand's Buriram United.
The other Japanese teams involved in the Champions League are Nagoya, Gamba Osaka and the Emperor's Cup holders FC Tokyo.
Nagoya coach Dragan Stojkovic goes into the new season buoyant, declaring his squad was "perfect".
The team's high-profile players include Australian international striker Josh Kennedy, Japan internationals Keiji Tamada, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Jungo Fujimoto, and former international goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki.
"Everything is OK. Everything is under control," said the coach.
"It is very simple -- let's share the emotions, let's share the enjoyment.... We will give our best to get the title. We will never give up," he added.
Gamba, who finished just two points behind Kashiwa last year, start the season with a new coach, Brazilian Jose Carlos Serrao, while former champions Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds are expected to be a threat.
"This is the team I played for. We won many titles," said Kashima's coach Jorginho, another Brazilian, who played for the seven-time former winners in the 1990s.
"After I left the team, Kashima continued to win titles. I hope I can help the team win more titles."
Urawa's new coach Mihailo Petrovic praised the fans for their backing.
"I know the club's supporters are a great help for them. I want to share the enjoyment with our supporters by returning to that stage once again. I want to help Urawa return to the golden days," he said.
On Saturday, Nagoya take on Shimizu S-Pulse while Gamba play Vissel Kobe. Kashima and Urawa visit Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, while Omiya Ardija play FC Tokyo.
Kashiwa clash with Yokohama Marinos at home on Sunday.