02
Nov
18

Kashima aim for crowning glory

Despite dominating the domestic scene, Kashima Antlers have never managed to triumph in continental competition. That could all change this month, as they contest their first ever Asian Champions League final against Persepolis of Iran… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 1st November, 2018

Kashima Antlers are rightfully proud of their status as Japan’s most successful club.

The story – being informed it was 99.999% impossible to join the J.League, signing Zico and doing so anyway, becoming the first professional side to complete a Japanese treble, winning every domestic title more times than any other team, becoming the first Asian side to progress to the Club World Cup final (and nearly beating Real Madrid once there) – has been told many times, and is a history any team would revel in.

There is, however, one piece of silverware that has eluded the team from Ibaraki. One trophy they have failed to get their hands on. Despite their dominance at home, Kashima have never been able to declare themselves champions of Asia.

Ahead of this season they had taken part in the Champions League seven times, and the best they had managed was a quarter-final berth in 2008. Four times they were eliminated in the Round of 16, including last year when the absence of the Asian trophy from their impressive trophy cabinet will have nagged even more as bitter rivals Urawa Reds surged to their second triumph in the competition.

In a couple of weeks, however, that could all change and the missing piece could finally be added as they contest their first final in the tournament against Persepolis of Iran.

Antlers’ road to the final has been a rather strange and, until the semi-final against Suwon Bluewings, reasonably stress-free affair, with Go Oiwa’s side never really clicking into top gear but at the same time rarely staring elimination in the face.

They won just two of their group stage games – both away from home – but lost only once, 1-0 against Suwon when they knew they were already guaranteed of progression from Group H.

That loss did allow Suwon to leapfrog them to the top of the table and meant an intimidating Round of 16 clash against Shanghai SIPG, although that was negotiated with relative ease after a 3-1 home win was followed by a 2-1 defeat on the road – a result that looks closer than it was thanks to a late Hulk penalty.

Chinese opposition was disposed of with the minimum of fuss in the quarter-final as well, with Tianjin Quanjian looking a shell of their group stage selves after the departure of Axel Witsel and without wantaway striker Anthony Modeste and being swatted aside 5-0 on aggregate.

That set up a rematch against Suwon, which looked favourable on paper but descended into chaos after just six minutes of the first leg as the Koreans established a 2-0 lead in Kashima.

A Jang Ho-ik own goal offered Antlers some encouragement midway through the first half, however, before a pair of late goals from Serginho and, in the 93rd minute, Atsuto Uchida, completed a sensational comeback.

That wasn’t to be the end of the semi-final drama though, not by a long chalk.

After stressing the importance of starting the second leg better than the first, Antlers assumed control of the early proceedings at Suwon World Cup Stadium and claimed an away goal of their own in the 25th minute when Shuto Yamamoto headed home a Serginho free-kick. That left them 4-2 ahead in the tie and as good as in the final until Suwon mounted a comeback of their own after the break.

Football Channel, 2nd November 2018

Im Sang-hyeob struck the first jab for the hosts by tucking home a rebound in the 52nd minute, and with Antlers suddenly shaken Jo Sung-jin made it 2-1 within a minute, powering home a bullet of a header from a corner. Kashima were now on the ropes and looked like conceding every time Suwon attacked, something they sure enough did again on the hour mark when Dejan Damjanovic snuck in behind and put Suwon 5-4 ahead on aggregate.

Antlers were punch-drunk by this point and Elvis Saric had the chance to land the killer blow in the 62nd minute, yet again breaching a porous defence but sending his effort narrowly wide.

The Bosnian would come to rue that miss two minutes later, as Kashima snatched a goal back through Daigo Nishi – a strike which left the tie all square at 5-5, with both teams having a pair of away goals to their name. That state of affairs enabled Kashima to regain the composure they had shown in the opening 45 minutes, and it wasn’t especially surprising when Serginho pounced on a loose ball in the area in the 82nd minute to finally decide the contest in their favour.

As exciting as the semi-final was it did highlight the current fragility in the Kashima defence, which absolutely must be overcome if they are to stand a chance of defeating Persepolis.

Far from being a one-off, a susceptibility at the back has been prevalent all throughout October as Antlers have conceded at least twice in five of their six games in all competitions. With their schedule set to become even harsher – including the two legs of the final they will play four games in 11 days between 31 October and 10 November – tiredness and the resultant individual errors could even increase as the club head into the biggest games in their history.

Injuries have certainly played a part, and a big decision to be made ahead of the final is whether to stick with Gen Shoji at centre back. The 25-year-old is a top class defender but has looked understandably rusty in his two games since returning from an extended spell on the sidelines, and while he has another week to get up to speed and show he is ready if he isn’t at 100 percent then Oiwa may need to consider going with Tomoya Inukai instead.

Going forward, things look far more promising. Yuma Suzuki and Serginho are combining very well, with the latter now having scored in all four of his ACL games since joining the club in August and the former a handful for even the best defenders. Shoma Doi poses a constant threat as well, and with the full-backs also given free license to push into the final third Kashima always have a goal in them – the aforementioned loss to Suwon is the only game in the competition in which they have failed to find the net.

They should maintain that attacking stance heading into the final, and even bearing in mind their defensive concerns – or perhaps because of them – a positive, no fear approach will give Kashima the best chance of reaching the promised land and succeeding Urawa as kings of the continent.

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