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Inspired Antlers squad captures J. League title

by Andrew Mckirdy

KASHIMA — Kashima Antlers pulled off an unbelievable J. League title triumph on Saturday with a 3-0 demolition of Shimizu S-Pulse, as championship rival Urawa Reds blew the defense of their crown with a stunning 1-0 defeat to Yokohama FC.

News photoKashima forward Marquinhos (right) reacts with teammate Yuzo Tashiro after scoring a goal in the 59th
minute against Shimizu at Kashima Stadium on Saturday afternoon. With a 3-0 win over S-Pulse, Antlers
clinched their first league title in six years.
KYODO PHOTO

Antlers had not led the league at any time going into the final day of the season, but goals from captain Mitsuo Ogasawara, Masashi Motoyama and Marquinhos meant Kashima claimed top spot when it really counted.

After a terrible start to the 2007 campaign, few would have staked money on Antlers taking a record fifth J. League championship as they lagged behind the leading pack.

But the midseason return from Italy of midfield inspiration Ogasawara galvanized an underachieving Antlers side, spurring them on to a club record-breaking winning streak to put real pressure on the stuttering Reds.

A 1-0 win over Urawa last week gave Kashima a sliver of a chance going into the final day of the season, but the 31,384 present in Kashima Stadium on Saturday turned up more in hope than expectation.

Nothing less than a win would have sufficed for Antlers, but with Reds in action against bottom side Yokohama, even that would not have been enough had Urawa been able to finish the job against the J. League’s fastest-ever relegated team.

But as a rampant Kashima put S-Pulse to the sword, Reds were busy blowing their golden opportunity to clinch the championship.

After the match, an emotional Oswaldo Oliveira could scarcely believe his side had just delivered the title in his first season in charge.

“I am feeling very happy,” he said, “because it was incredible to get the championship. It was very difficult to recover as we have done.

“I always believe, but the credibility increased when the team started to win games away from home. We were playing with a lot of confidence against important opponents.”

Oliveira also paid tribute to Ogasawara’s impact after returning from an abortive spell at Serie A side Messina.

“He is very important as a link,” he said. “He brings equilibrium to the team. He is a player for the national team. He must be there.”

The Brazilian coach also tempered suggestions his team can emulate the success of outgoing J. League champion Urawa by winning next season’s Asian Champions League.

“The most important thing was to win the league,” he said. “We go step by step. The Asian Champions League is another step, and there is still a long way to go.”

Antlers began the match eager to press forward at every opportunity, but with Brazilian schemer Fernandinho looking dangerous for S-Pulse, the threat of a Shimizu counterattack was ever present.

Kashima stuck to the task, and as news of Yokohama’s shock 17th-minute goal rumbled around the stadium, Antlers striker Marquinhos went down in the box after controlling a low cross from the left.

Ogasawara dispatched the resulting penalty with a cool strike past the reach of S-Pulse goalkeeper Yohei Nishibe, and suddenly Kashima found itself in pole position.

With the wind in their sails, Marquinhos almost doubled Antlers’ lead shortly after as he evaded two defenders, only to hit the side netting.

S-Pulse weathered the storm to come back into the match, but Antlers looked comfortable with Ogasawara and Motoyama dominating in midfield.

Motoyama’s tireless harrying carved out another Kashima chance three minutes before the break, as he won the ball in the S-Pulse box only for Yuzo Tashiro to lob the ball onto the roof of the net.

Antlers maintained the momentum after the interval, and with only five minutes of the second half gone, S-Pulse could only clear a Kashima corner as far as Motoyama, lurking outside the penalty area.

The 28-year-old let fly with a screaming shot to give Antlers a two-goal cushion and send the home fans into a frenzied delirium.

Ten minutes later, the deal was done. Marquinhos looked to have over-elaborated as he found himself clean through on goal, but the Brazilian recovered to fire off a crisp shot into the back of the net.

The action remained frantic as Kashima’s supporters sweated on events in Yokohama.

Marquinhos and veteran substitute Atsushi Yanagisawa toiled endlessly to make sure Antlers kept up their end of the bargain, but late goals for Urawa would have put all their effort to waste.

But when the result was final, and Kashima’s championship, was confirmed, the reaction was as much an outpouring of surprise as joy that Antlers, who along with their coach raced onto the pitch, had pulled off one of the most unlikely triumphs in J. League history.