KASHIMA, Ibaraki Pref. — Kashima Antlers gave yet another example of their pedigree as the defending champions opened the new J. League season with a masterful 2-0 win over Urawa Reds on Saturday.
Shinzo Koroki gave Antlers a fifth-minute lead in front of a crowd of 35,251 at Kashima Stadium, but Reds’ dogged tackling checked their momentum as the visitors gradually began to dominate possession.
In an almost carbon-copy of last season’s opening match between the two sides, however, Marquinhos popped up on the counterattack to double Kashima’s advantage late in the second half, leaving Urawa chasing shadows as the clock ticked down.
“The game was wonderful for us,” said Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira. “We always like to play using the openings, and after we scored Urawa advanced and suddenly we had space to counterattack.
“The performance was, in my view, better than last year. We played well like last year, but I think the dynamic of the game this year was much better. Opportunities for goals appeared and it was a good present for the public.”
Koroki gave the hosts the perfect start when he beat Keisuke Tsuboi to Mitsuo Ogasawara’s cross, effortlessly turning the ball past Norihiro Yamagishi to put the champions in the driver’s seat.
Marquinhos could only hit the post after taking Tomoya Ugajin out of the game with a delicious stepover as the home side threatened to add to its tally, but Urawa debutant Yosuke Kashiwagi made goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata stretch to palm a fierce shot over the crossbar as the visitors redoubled their efforts.
Kashima’s chances grew scarcer and scarcer as Reds’ hunger and persistence earned them a solid foothold in midfield, and Sogahata tipped a Robson Ponte drive over as Urawa took its momentum into the second half.
But if Reds needed a reminder of Kashima’s menace on the counterattack, Marquinhos provided it first with a near miss from a Koji Nakata cutback, then with a drive that thundered against the bar. If that was not clear enough, the Brazilian headed a Yasushi Endo cross past Yamagishi in the 86th minute to put the result beyond doubt.
“It was very intense and for 70 or 75 minutes it was very even,” said Urawa manager Volker Finke. “Most of the players tried everything and the fighting was OK and the mentality was OK, but we have to work on the last pass. You have to score.
“It was the first game and if you win it is a bonus because you are playing against the best team of the last three years. If you lose you are not happy, but if you lose and you have a bad game you are angry. It’s not like that today. I’m disappointed, but not angry.”
This season’s promoted sides made a successful start to the new campaign, with Ryang Yong Gi’s first-minute goal giving J2 champion Vegalta Sendai a 1-0 win over Jubilo Iwata and Shonan Bellmare claiming a 1-1 draw at home to Montedio Yamagata.
Shunsuke Nakamura’s transfer did not go through in time to make his debut for Yokohama F. Marinos against FC Tokyo, but a 90th-minute goal from Sota Hirayama secured a 1-0 win for the capital city side. Shimizu S-Pulse’s Shinji Ono had a happier return to the J. League as teammate Genki Omae notched an injury-time equalizer to salvage a 1-1 draw against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Last year’s runnerup Kawasaki Frontale beat Albirex Niigata 2-1, while in the the day’s late game Nagoya Grampus edged Gamba Osaka 2-1.