Kashima Antlers, Urawa Reds compete for J.League crown

Played across two-legs, the J.League Championship Final between Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers will not only determine Japan’s top club for 2016, but also the nation’s representative at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016. The Reds earned their berth by finishing top of the overall first-division standings, while Antlers won the first stage and ended the season in third place. The latter defeated second-place Kawasaki Frontale 1-0 in the semi-final play-off and will carry this momentum into the final’s first leg, where they will enjoy home advantage.

The J.League’s top tier will return to a single-stage tournament from 2017, so this year’s play-off will be the last J1 championship decided under this format. The league used this two-stage system between 1993 and 1995, 1997 and 2004, as well as for the last two seasons. Kashima have reached five of the previous 12 championship play-offs, and clinched three titles. Urawa reached the play-offs in 2015 after winning the first stage and finishing second in the overall table, but were defeated by third-placed Gamba Osaka. This season, Urawa finished top of the table with 74 points—15 points ahead of Kashima. After last year’s disappointing finish, Urawa are keen to atone by clinching what would only be the club’s second-ever championship.

Kashima will host the first leg on November 29, and Urawa will enjoy home comfort for the return fixture on December 3. FIFA.com takes a closer look at this keenly anticipated battle for Japanese supremacy between two of the country’s footballing giants.

The match Kashima and Urawa are powerhouses with many similarities—both traditionally wear red strips, have passionate fans, have been in the J.League since its inception and have won regular silverware. One striking difference lies in the careers of their respective coaches.

Urawa supremo Mihailo Petrovic was born in what is now Serbia and played for clubs including Crvena Zvezda, Dinamo Zagreb and Sturm Graz. After becoming a coach, Petrovic spent time at Sturm Graz before he led Sanfrecce Hiroshima for six seasons and laid the foundation for what became a golden period for the Purple Archers. Midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi, defenders Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Moriwaki, and goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa all played under Petrovic at Hiroshima and have become key players since moving to Urawa.

By contrast, Kashima coach Masatada Ishii devoted his entire professional playing career to Antlers, except for spending the final year at Avispa Fukuoka in 1998. Since hanging up his boots, Ishii has held several coaching positions at Kashima, including assistant coach, before assuming the top job in mid-2015 after Toninho Cerezo was dismissed. Although Ishii is overshadowed by Petrovic in terms of experience and titles, he has proven adept at picking the right players at the right time and ensured Kashima have retained the ability to withstand the pressure of crunch matches. This was amply demonstrated by Kashima’s gritty 1-0 victory over Kawasaki in the semi-final.

The final also features match-ups between several star players boasting international experience. The battle for ascendency in midfield will be especially intriguing as Kashima’s Mitsuo Ogasawara and Ryota Nagaki come up against Urawa’s Yuki Abe and Yosuke Kashiwagi. The tussle among some of Japan’s most experienced and talented midfielders will be befitting the season’s finale.

In terms of stats, Urawa had the most solid defence in 2016, conceding just 28 goals, with Kashima almost as impressive, leaking just 34 goals. With both defences proving difficult to crack, any goals in Tuesday’s opener could have a major bearing on the final result. In particular, Urawa will need to closely watch Mu Kanazaki, who netted the decisive strike against Kawasaki.

Key players While both teams have their share of past and present Japanese internationals, the performance of Reds forward Shinzo Koroki could well be pivotal to this play-off. Koroki, who started his career with Kashima and spent several seasons there, is Urawa’s top scorer this season. As well as being a clinical finisher, the agile 30-year-old does not shirk the physical aspect of the game - qualities that earned him selection as an over-age player for Japan’s squad at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. For their part, Kashima’s title hopes will hinge largely on veteran midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara, who was instrumental in steering them to victory over Frontale in the semi-final play-off. Although now 37, the former international playmaker still has the creativity and skill to create openings for his younger team-mates.

In numbers **7 - **Since the J.League was launched in 1993, Kashima have won seven league titles. Urawa, in contrast, have just one league crown (2006), but in 2007 they won the AFC Champions League—a title that has to date eluded Antlers—and played in the FIFA Club World Cup.

What they said “Kashima are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to performing when the stakes are high. Antlers have many experienced players, so we’ll need to contain them. I want us to play our own brand of football and we’ll need to work hard to beat Kashima. I think the team that is most determined not to lose will win.” Shinzo Koroki, Urawa Reds forward

“We’ll need to ensure we have a solid defence first and foremost, just like we did in our victory over Kawasaki Frontale in the semi-final. Our approach in the second leg will be shaped by the first-leg result, so it’s important we make a winning start at home. We must make sure we come out on top, whatever it takes. Ideally, we’ll win without conceding a goal.” Masatada Ishii, Kashima manager

Schedule First leg, November 29 Kashima Soccer Stadium

Second leg, December 3 Saitama Stadium