KASHIMA, Ibaraki Pref. — Kashima Antlers nudged back in front in the J. League title race as the defending champions beat hapless JEF United Chiba 3-0 on Saturday to end their six-game winless slump.
Antlers had taken only one point since Aug. 23 going into the game at Kashima Stadium, and had paid the price by dropping into second place after holding a seemingly invincible lead for most of the season.
But Shinzo Koroki helped put that to rights with a well-taken strike in the ninth minute, before Marquinhos and substitute Yuzo Tashiro scored either side of halftime against a poor Chiba side now almost certainly heading for relegation.
Kawasaki Frontale can reclaim top spot with a win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Sunday, but Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliveira warned his rivals they cannot rely on any more gifts going into the final straight. “This was important for us,” he said. “We have a new atmosphere with only four games left. We have our confidence back. I think this will give us more energy, more power, more strength to look forward and try to win our next four matches.”
Antlers claimed the last two championships with strong spurts toward the end of the season, and Oliveira is urging his players to channel the same spirit again.
“I always say to the players that for the last two years we played and won several matches at the end of the league, and we have the experience to do this again,” he said. “That will help, no doubt about it. All the time I make them remember what happened.”
JEF had several chances to take the lead in just the first minute, but after Tatsunori Arai had fired the best of them against the crossbar, Koroki pounced to settle the home side’s nerves.
Mitsuo Ogasawara snapped up a careless pass by Chiba’s Eddy Bosnar, and Koroki timed his run to perfection to latch onto the captain’s through-ball and direct it past goalkeeper Masahiro Okamoto.
Ten minutes later, the scorer turned provider. Bursting through two defenders inside the JEF box, Koroki slid the ball across to where Marquinhos was lurking, and the Brazilian bustled his way in front of Bosnar to find the net and double Kashima’s advantage.
Antlers continued to create chances without landing the knockout blow, but it was Chiba that went closest when Arai again hit the woodwork in one of JEF’s few forays forward.
But Tashiro eventually added to Kashima’s tally in the 78th minute, picking up the ball wide on the left and riding a challenge before beating Okamoto to leave the final scoreline more accurately reflecting Antlers’ dominance.
“In the first half we made some mistakes and couldn’t find our rhythm, and although we started to move better in the second half we couldn’t find the goal,” said JEF manager Atsuhiko Ejiri, whose team is nine points adrift of safety having played a game less than fourth-from-bottom Omiya Ardija.
“We have a professional group of players who will keep fighting until the end.”
The end did arrive for Oita Trinita later in the day, however, after a 1-1 draw with Kyoto Sanga confirmed last year’s Nabisco Cup winners’ long-anticipated relegation to J2. Kashiwa Reysol remain in trouble after losing 1-0 to Montedio Yamagata.
Elsewhere, Albirex Niigata’s title aspirations took a heavy blow with a 1-0 defeat away to Vissel Kobe, while fellow contenders Gamba Osaka could only manage a scoreless draw against Yokohama F. Marinos.