KASHIMA, Ibaraki Pref. — An injury-time header from Daiki Iwamasa gave Kashima Antlers one hand on the J. League title with a 1-0 win over Jubilo Iwata on Saturday.
Defending champions Antlers can now clinch their sixth championship on the final day next Saturday with a win or a draw at already-relegated Consadole Sapporo.
Kawasaki Frontale kept its challenge alive three points behind Kashima with a 4-0 drubbing of Vissel Kobe, while Nagoya Grampus must beat Consadole on Sunday to avoid dropping out of the race.
Kashima’s superior goal difference means the club can even clinch the title in defeat at Sapporo Dome, although Frontale’s second big win in two weeks narrows that gap to four.
It would have been a different story had Iwamasa not popped up with three minutes of injury time gone at Kashima Stadium to bury a free-kick from Chikashi Masuda, sparking wild celebrations among the 29,820-strong crowd led by Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliveira.
“Now we have one more game,” he said. “Today we could have missed the chance and then in the last moment we scored.
“The players insist, they try all the time. They never give up and that is important. It is the behaviour of champions.”
But the Brazilian is not taking the championship for granted just yet. Mindful of the way his team profited last year from Urawa Reds’ final-day breakdown against bottom side Yokohama FC, Oliveira is preaching concentration ahead of next weekend’s meeting with Consadole.
“We know it will be a difficult match, and we have to prepare very well for it,” he said. “But everyone is going to play and we have one week to prepare the team.”
Saturday’s result also leaves former powerhouse Jubilo in real danger of going down for the first time in its history, although losses for fellow strugglers JEF United and Tokyo Verdy mean the relegation battle will also go down to the wire.
Jubilo manager Hans Ooft knows his team will have to do better after lambasting his midfielders for leaving their teammates isolated in attack.
“I am a realist,” he said. “We have to win, but to win you have to score goals. The buildup wasn’t good, and we have to improve it because we have to go forward with the ball and with the whole team.”
Although the threat of a goal was ever-present as Kashima dominated the opening stages, Marquinhos was too surprised to take advantage when a Masaki Chugo free-kick found its way through to the back post with ten minutes gone.
Takuya Nozawa went closer to breaking the deadlock when he thumped a drive just past the post after good work from Chugo and Masashi Motoyama, before spurning an even better chance when he blasted wide after a flick-on from Shinzo Koroki.
Iwamasa and Marquinhos got in each other’s way as Nozawa sent in a low cross five minutes after the interval, but the spring gradually began to fall from Kashima’s step as Jubilo grew in confidence with every ball-winning tackle in defense.
Substitute Yuzo Tashiro’s appearance gave Antlers a different dimension, however, and the striker fired a header over the bar as time ticked toward the 90 minute-mark.
But with the seconds slipping away, Jubilo’s Yuichi Komano was adjudged to have felled Marquinhos near the corner flag, and Masuda picked out Iwamasa to snatch a huge win for Antlers.
“Our opponents came to collect just point today,” Oliveira said. “I told my players to try to force them into making mistakes, and it was lucky we scored in the last moment of the match. It was lucky, but we looked for it.”