Super-sub Mu Kanazaki once again came of the bench and found the net for Kashima Antlers at the FIFA Club World Cup. After bagging a dramatic late winner against Auckland City in the first round, Kanazaki scored the decisive second goal against Mamelodi Sundowns in a 2-0 victory on Sunday, sealing the deal as his side reached the semi-finals.
Although Kanazaki’s impact from the substitutes' bench against Sundowns saw him named Alibaba YunOS Auto Player of the Match, Kashima’s victory owes just as much to a string of superb first-half saves by goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata.
Sogahata is Kashima to the core. Born in the city northeast of Tokyo, he came through the club’s youth system and has played his entire career at the club. Now 37, the same age as Kashima’s midfield general Mitsuo Ogasawara, Sogahata remains a constant presence in goal for Antlers.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Sogahata, a four-time Japan international, reflected on the victory over the CAF Champions League winners and spoke of his desire to help Kashima go all the way at the Club World Cup.
“We just couldn’t find our rhythm in the first half,” said Sogahata, after the South African side dominated proceedings in the opening 45 minutes. “They were strong on the ball, and they threaded several good passes in behind our defence. We weren't able to match their pace and our passing in midfield wasn’t accurate, so we often found ourselves scrambling to defuse their counter-attacks.”
Sogahata made three excellent saves in that first period, including a leaping effort to block a long-range shot by Khama Billiat. Sogahata, however, made light of the importance of that stop. “The ball wasn’t moving incredibly fast, and it was within my reach," he said.
Antlers may have prevented Sundowns from scoring at the Suita City Football Stadium in Osaka, but Sogahata believes that a sluggish start in the next game against 2016 Copa Libertadores winners Atletico Nacional could be costly. “If our team doesn’t play better in the first half, it’ll be difficult to win,” he insisted.
Kashima had won their previous four games, starting with the J.League championship semi-final play-off on 23 November to the win over Auckland City in the opening game of this year's Club World Cup. That run of hard-fought matches has been physically draining, but Sogahata insists the team has benefited from the constant pressure.
“Experiencing these tough games has been wonderful,” he said. “If we hadn't won those games, we wouldn't be playing against strong opponents in matches where the stakes are high. It’s been a great experience for me and the team.”
Another tricky challenge awaits Kashima in the semi-finals, but Sogahata is undaunted by the challenge posed by Atletico Nacional, the only Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores twice. In fact, Sogahata already has one eye on the final. "I will do whatever it takes to reach the final, and I want to play in front of a massive crowd and win the Club World Cup,” he concluded.