Despite winning the first stage of the J1 season at the weekend, Kashima Antlers aren’t getting carried away and the players are keeping their eyes on the bigger picture…
KASHIMA, Ibaraki — Kashima Antlers won their first league trophy since 2009 on Saturday, but the addition wasn’t a cause for mass celebration.
The most successful club in J.League history wrapped up the J1 first-stage title after Shuto Yamamoto and Shoma Doi found the net in a 2-0 cruise over bottom-placed Avispa Fukuoka, but the players took the triumph in stride and have their sights set on the ultimate prize at the end of the season.
“We’ve won the first stage but you can’t call that a real title,” captain Mitsuo Ogasawara said.
“What we have to do now is also win the second stage and then go on to become overall champions. We can’t be satisfied with just this and need to keep winning from now on, too.”
That was also the way Ogasawara’s central midfield partner Gaku Shibasaki reacted to the success, seeing it as little more than a checkpoint on the way to becoming the yearly champion.
“Of course we’re delighted with this, but we won’t get carried away,” the 24-year-old said.
“I think we are capable of completing the perfect sweep of titles, but every team starts back at zero now and we have to just start working toward winning the second stage title.”
The J.League’s top flight returned to a two-stage format last season, with up to five teams qualifying for a postseason playoff series to battle for the crown as the year’s champion.
By winning the first stage Antlers have secured one of those spots, and Daigo Nishi is confident they can go on to finish the job.
“I think it’s really big for us to have gained a ticket for the playoffs,” the fullback said.
“We know we have an aptitude for knockout football. We’re still not the finished article, but I sense the team is growing bit by bit, and if we can keep going in that vein until the very end then I think we’ll do OK.”
Nishi believes that victories over the division’s other big hitters were vital to enabling his side — which only moved top of the table for the first time on June 18 — to pip Kawasaki Frontale to the post by a point.
“Beating Urawa [Reds], [Sanfrecce] Hiroshima, and Gamba [Osaka] was big,” he said. “I think we were able to become the champion because we won those games.”
Naomichi Ueda agreed, singling out the 2-0 win away to Urawa on June 11 as especially key.
“I think every game has been important, but the Urawa match was particularly big for us,” the Olympic centerback said.
“Since I joined Kashima [in 2013] we hadn’t beaten them, and so winning that game gave us real momentum.”
Goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata suggested the impetus for Kashima’s achievement came even further back, citing last season’s Nabisco Cup success — when Masatada Ishii’s side swept past defending champion Gamba 3-0 — as a turning point for the team.
“I think having that experience played a part in enabling us to win the first stage,” said the stopper, who has won the league six times with the club.
“It gave us confidence and now we’ve gained even more by picking up this title. We have to take advantage of that in the second stage.”
Ueda was in full agreement and dismissed claims that the team now has one hand on the trophy.
“What’s really important is to be the champion at the end,” said the 21-year-old, who is likely to miss a handful of games for his club while away with Japan at the Rio Games in August.
“Winning this title doesn’t mean we are the champion, I think everybody understands that. Everyone now wants to switch their focus to the next stage, and we just have to fight to become the second-stage champion now.”
That quest gets under way Saturday, when they welcome Gamba to Kashima as the second half kicks off.