Kashima Antlers finished well off the pace in the regular J1 season, but are now just two games away from being crowned champions – at the expense of bitter rivals and overall table-toppers Urawa Reds… (日本語版はこちらです)
Here we go, then. Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers to decide who will be crowned 2016 J.League champions. On paper this is the ideal way to see off the ill-fated two-stage system: the biggest club in Japanese football against the most successful club in Japanese football.
However, while a mouthwatering fixture, a glance at the overall table suggests the scales aren’t evenly balanced ahead of this heavyweight showdown.
Antlers ended up 15 points behind table-topping Reds after 34 games, as well as being worse off by 14 goals, and appeared to be on holiday during the second stage – finishing 11th in the rankings for the second term with only 20 points, less than half the 41 amassed by Reds over the same period.
The Ibaraki side won just six games in the second half of the season, losing nine times including their last four matches. They failed to even score in their final two league games, as they suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats at home to Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel Kobe.
Ultimately, having already booked their place in the play offs by winning the first stage, their last 17 games of the season didn’t matter though. That’s not to say they weren’t trying, but when there are no consequences for defeat it is understandably harder to motivate yourself to give everything for victory. Reds themselves cruised to the first stage title unbeaten last year, for instance, but went on to finish nine points behind second stage champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“We want to get into the Championship however we can,” Daigo Nishi told me back in June, after Kashima had beaten Reds 2-0 in Saitama to move six points clear of Urawa in second with two first stage games to play. “Antlers are good at knockout football so we want to make sure of our place.”
That victory set them on their way, and Kashima moved top the following weekend before finishing the job off and claiming the first stage crown a fortnight later. Rounds 16 and 17 of the first stage were the only two weeks Masatada Ishii’s side spent in first place all season. Kawasaki, who they beat 1-0 in the Championship semi final last Wednesday, conversely spent 21 rounds at the summit.
Frontale once again finished the campaign empty handed, however, while Antlers are just two games away from adding an eighth first division title. After cruising through the past few months they now have the bit between their teeth, nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Antlers have played the system almost to perfection and conserved their energy, both physical and mental, for the final push – just as they did at the end of the first stage when they executed their smash and grab with six wins on the bounce to pip Reds and Frontale to the post.
“I told you, right, during the first stage? If we make it into the Championship we will be strong,” Nishi reminded me after Wednesday’s win over Frontale. “We are the challenger.
“We were a little bit stiff [at the start of the semi final], but I don’t think it was too different to usual. There’ll be less of that in the final – we’re confident. I think winning today will give us a boost.”
Captain Mitsuo Ogasawara dismissed the idea that the respective finalist’s league records will have an influence on the game, as well as brushing aside any suggestion that Antlers have the extra motivation of denying their biggest rivals a first league crown for a decade.
“I don’t care who the opponent is,” he said in typically forthright fashion. “Looking at it from a different perspective of course we wanted to do well in [the second stage] too, but that is that and this is this.”
Kento Misao, who was sent on to firm things up as Kawasaki looked for an equaliser in the semi final, is of a similar mind and thinks Reds will be feeling a greater sense of expectation on their shoulders.
“It’s different games, the league and Championship, and it doesn’t matter that we were 15 points behind them,” he said.
“We have to win and play aggressively. I think they have more pressure than us. It will be difficult but if we play our football we can win.”
For all the talk of it being a different competition, though, it isn’t. Whoever emerges as the victor from the next two games will go down in history as the 2016 champions.
Antlers have shown time and again that they can up their game when the heat is on, and the temperature is sure to be searing come the second leg in Saitama on 3rd December. Can Reds avoid being burned?