Kashima complete rocky road to glory

Harnessing a balanced blend of youth and experience, Kashima Antlers won their eighth J.League title in dramatic style and booked a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016. Their run to glory was anything but smooth, but Antlers somehow found a way to clinch their first title in seven years.

Antlers defeated Urawa Reds on the away goals rule after the two-legged championship final ended 2-2 on aggregate. Reds had finished top of the table this season - 15 points ahead of Kashima - and held a 1-0 lead after the first leg, but Antlers’ 2-1 victory in the return match handed them the title.

Antlers are known for not giving up until the final whistle, and this steely resolve was crucial to sealing the crown. “We just try as hard as we can, whether we’re training or playing a match,” said the team's midfield general, Mitsuo Ogasawara.

The champions The season’s 17-game first stage was initially dominated by Urawa and Kawasaki Frontale. However, a streak of five games without a win saw Urawa drop out of contention. Frontale had one hand on the title with two games to play, but a draw with Avispa Fukuoka (who eventually finished last overall) and then a loss to Gamba Osaka was enough for Kashima to sneak past and grab the crown.

After this superb beginning, however, Kashima’s form deteriorated rapidly in the second stage. In the summer, a feud between coach Masatada Ishii and key striker Mu Kanazaki spilled into the public arena, and the club appeared in crisis as Ishii took a brief break due to stress. Even after Ishii returned, Antlers’ struggles continued and they finished the stage down in 11th. Once again, Urawa and Frontale had set the pace as Gamba and Vissel Kobe also moved up the table.

In the end, Urawa clinched the 17-game stage on the back of an attacking style of play ingrained in the team by coach Mihailo Petrovic, which resulted in the Reds scoring 35 goals and conceding just 12. Urawa’s consistency, attacking flair and solid defence were the ideal ingredients for a top-of-the-table finish.

First-stage champions Kashima defeated overall second-placed side Frontale 1-0 in the semi-final play-off to set up the home-and-away final against Reds. After losing the first leg 1-0, Antlers upset Urawa and dashed the hopes of Reds fans in the second leg at Saitama Stadium.

Key points Kanazaki was Kashima’s top scorer during the 34-game regular season with ten goals, which placed him 16th in the J.League scorers’ charts. However, the 27-year-old burst into life in the play-offs with three goals in three games and was named championship MVP. During the season, midfielder Shoma Doi was Kashima’s second-highest scorer with nine goals, followed by forward Yuma Suzuki, who netted eight. The average age of Kanazaki, Doi and Suzuki is just 23.7.

The youthful attacking players who spearheaded Kashima’s title charge are complemented by the vastly experienced Ogasawara and evergreen goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata, who are both 37. The Antlers’ defence, meanwhile, centred around Gen Shoji and Shuto Yamamoto, who performed reliably throughout the season.

The dip in Kashima’s form as the second stage unfolded resulted in the club scoring and conceding 24 goals and finishing with 59 points overall, far behind Urawa (74) and Kawasaki (72). But after scraping into the play-offs, Antlers regained their resilient edge and found a way to win when the stakes were highest.

The stat **34** - Kashima conceded 34 goals during the regular J.League season, an average of one per game. Their experienced defensive unit was vital to the club’s title chase.

Did you know? Antlers coach Masatada Ishii also played for the Ibaraki Prefecture-based club and was part of the team that won Kashima’s first league title in 1996. All seven of Kashima’s previous titles had come under the guidance of Brazilian coaches, but Ishii is the first Japanese supremo to lead Antlers to a domestic league crown. Although 2016 was a roller-coaster season marked by a brilliant first stage and a disappointing second stage, Ishii ultimately delivered the title craved by Antlers supporters.

What they said “We started this season with a duty to win a title, and I’m delighted that we were able to achieve that.” Masatada Ishii, Kashima coach

“I don’t think we should feel downcast about our season. We can be proud and confident as we turn towards next season." Mihailo Petrovic, Urawa coach