Kashima Antlers emerged victorious from las year’s post-season play-offs to pick up the 2016 J1 crown, but over the regular season Urawa Reds claimed the most points. I spoke to players from both teams to see how they’re shaping up ahead of the new campaign…
The J.League first division returns to a regular 34-game format this season after its two-stage system was drawn to a close in controversial circumstances in 2016.
Kashima Antlers’ shirt will be adorned with the official gold champion’s patch after the Ibaraki club won last year’s postseason “Championship” playoff, but defeated opponent Urawa Reds have every right to feel aggrieved having finished a full 15 points ahead of Antlers over the course of the season.
While that was a bitter pill for Reds to swallow, the players’ belief in their approach has not diminished as they head into the new campaign, which kicks off Saturday.
“We have the feeling of being the champion — we won the overall league with the most points in history, so we have confidence,” Reds striker Tadanari Lee told The Japan News ahead of the new season.
“However, Kashima then went on to play against Real Madrid and put in a great performance, so maybe everyone has forgotten [about our achievement].”
The former Southampton striker admits he was supporting Antlers as they did themselves proud as J.League representative at the Club World Cup — taking Real to extra time in the final before succumbing to two quick-fire Cristiano Ronaldo goals — and insists there is no extra desire to exact revenge.
“That’s not really a motivation,” he said. “We know if we play our football we’ll win the title — we just have to believe in that. Every team has brought in reinforcements, but the most important thing is the strength of the team as a whole.”
Defender Wataru Endo is reading from the same script.
“We know if we do the same thing as last season and get the most points, then we’ll be the champion,” the Japan defender said.
“On top of that, because we lost in the Championship last year, we weren’t able to compete in the Club World Cup, which is a competition I personally and the team as a whole really want to take part in.
“To do that now we have to win the Asian Champions League, so our two big targets this year are to become the champion in the league and the ACL.”
Antlers played the system to perfection last season, but know they will have to redouble their efforts in order to retain the J1 shield.
“This year it isn’t the case that you can win the first stage and know you are guaranteed a playoff place,” centerback Gen Shoji said. “We must aim to win the title outright.”
That task has been made even tougher by an unforgiving schedule.
Antlers’ 2016 campaign didn’t conclude until they defeated Kawasaki Frontale to also lift the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day 2017, and after just a fortnight off, the team was back in preseason training.
Since then the Ibaraki outfit has taken part in warm-up competitions in Thailand and Miyazaki, beaten Reds 3-2 in Saturday’s curtain-raising Super Cup match, and also gotten its ACL campaign underway on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai.
However, Shoji is determined not to use the fixture congestion as an excuse.
“The only way to think about it is positively,” the 24-year-old said.
“Instead of thinking, ‘Ah, we didn’t have much time off to rest,’ it can be a positive for us if we look at it in the sense that our bodies are still in good shape, and it has been easier to get back into the swing of things.”
Chasing the J.League-ACL double
The strain on the Kashima squad will also be eased by several impressive signings, with goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae, defender Yuto Misao, and Brazilian pair Leo Silva and Pedro Junior all arriving.
“The club have brought in a few new players, but it’s not like there will be two different teams for the J.League and ACL,” Leo Silva said. “As a group we are all working together to become champion in the league and in Asia.
“Having the chance to join a team that achieved such good results last year serves as a big motivation. You don’t get so many chances in your career to win titles, so it is great to join a team like Kashima, which is always in the mix to win competitions.”
His compatriot Pedro Junior scored 11 times in the league for Vissel Kobe last season and is hoping he can help his new side build on the success of 2016.
“The aim has to be to achieve even better results than last season, especially when you consider that a club as big as Kashima has never won the Asian Champions League,” he said.
“The coach and his staff have clearly outlined what our targets are for the season, and each of us is playing with them in mind.
“Last year the two-stage-plus-playoffs system worked to Kashima’s advantage, but this year it is back to the team with the most points over the season being declared champion, so we are all concentrating on fighting together to achieve that.”
Reds have also added firepower though, and Endo believes this will make last season’s most consistent side an even tougher proposition.
“The number of players in the squad has risen, which adds an extra sense of competition for places,” he said. “In particular, I feel we now have a lot of options in the forward positions.”
Rafael Silva from Albirex Niigata and Japan U-23 striker Ado Onaiwu are the two out-and-out center forwards to have joined, and Onaiwu has detected a resolution in the squad to make up for last season’s disappointment.
“The atmosphere in the camp is really good, and everyone is very positive,” the former JEF United player said.
“Of course there is some lingering regret after the way last season ended, but everyone has the motivation to put that right this year. There is a desire to change the mind-set, in a good way, and approach this season with a new spirit to make sure we win the title.”
The race to the finish line is sure to be as fierce as ever, but when it comes to deciding the 2017 champion, there will be no ambiguity — this year there can be only one.