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Antlers back in action in Xerox Super Cup

by Andrew Mckirdy

Club soccer returns to Japan on Saturday as reigning J. League champion Kashima Antlers take on Emperor’s Cup runnerup Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the traditional curtain-raising Xerox Super Cup match.

The game is a final tuneup for the two sides before the J. League season kicks off a week later, and Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira is hoping to use the occasion to steal a march on his rivals for the 2008 title.

“It is very important because this match is the first official match we have,” Oliveira said on Friday. “It is a competition, and we have to be ready for that. We will be looking to win it, and psychologically that would be very good for the start of the season.”

It is little wonder the Brazilian places so much importance on psychology, given the dramatic fashion his team clinched the title on the last day of the 2007 season.

The Ibaraki side was nowhere to be seen as then-champion Urawa Reds held a commanding lead over nearest challenger Gamba Osaka with just one month of the season remaining. But Antlers put together an amazing winning streak, storming into contention as Urawa faltered badly.

With the momentum of a club-record eight successive victories driving it into the final day, Kashima clinched the championship with a 3-0 demolition of Shimizu S-Pulse, while a broken Urawa completed its capitulation with a 1-0 defeat to already-relegated Yokohama FC.

The shock title win marked a triumph for the underdog against its more celebrated rival, but as current champion, Kashima is now there for other teams to shoot at.

“We are in the same league as all the other teams and we are going to fight to be ahead of them,” Oliveira said.

“Last season was very good for us because we won two competitions in a row. We developed very well as the season went on, and that shows that our preparation was wonderful.

“But it is also very important to have our players in their best form.”

Central defender Daiki Iwamasa believes he and his teammates can repeat the heroics of the last season.

“We have a good balance of experience and young players in the team now, and it is a good time for us,” he said. “We have the right blend.

“We want to win this match against Sanfrecce. It is the start of the season and it is important to get the season off to a good start.”

It is also a season that will place more demands on Antlers than most other teams. As J. League champion, Kashima will be competing in the Asian Champions League, a competition won last year by Reds.

Oliveira and his players are relishing the prospect of emulating the Saitama giant, but the coach is also wary of the effects of competing in such a taxing competition.

“Of course I am worried,” he said. “It isn’t just that we have to play in the two competitions. It is also that we have a very short space to recover, and that is very important nowadays.

“If you don’t have players 100 percent ready to play, then it is very difficult. It depends on how the substitutes can perform when they come into the team.

“We know it is difficult and the example of Urawa and Frontale last season shows that. But we are doing our best, and we will use all we have.”

Sanfrecce has no such problems. Relegated from the first division last season after losing its playoff against Kyoto Sanga, the Hiroshima side has a far-less-glamorous campaign ahead of it.

But after losing the Emperor’s Cup final to Antlers on New Year’s Day, Sanfrecce coach Mihailo Petrovic will at least have the consolation of leading out the first J2 team ever to take part in the Xerox Cup match.