If Kashima Antlers’ rivals were hoping the champions’ thirst for success had been quenched by three straight championships, the first month of the new campaign suggests otherwise.
Antlers occupy a familiar position in first place in the embryonic league table, standing two points clear of Shimizu S-Pulse after winning three and drawing one of their opening four games.
Having exposed a chink in their armor during a post-summer slump of five defeats in a row last year, and with key midfielder Masashi Motoyama missing the start of this season through injury, there was reason enough for the pretenders to Kashima’s throne to believe the champions might not have it all their own way this time.
They should have known better. Kashima’s mortified reaction to the 1-1 draw at Kyoto Sanga on the second weekend said everything about the mentality of Oswaldo Oliveira’s squad, and the subsequent 1-0 win over a streetwise Omiya Ardija was the perfect response.
Even an injury to Motoyama’s replacement, Fellype Gabriel, has been overcome, with 21-year-old Yasushi Endo filling the breach with two goals in his debut start in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Montedio Yamagata.
When Antlers beat Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium to win the title last December, Oliveira stressed how important it was to start and finish the match strongly. As with 90 minutes, so with a whole season.
Antlers’ rivals must have been praying they would stumble out of the blocks and give everyone else a head start, but instead the upsets have come elsewhere.
Kashima, it seems, just doesn’t do surprises.
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Kyoto Sanga midfielder Hiroki Nakayama might have grabbed the headlines with his sublime last-minute lob against Jubilo Iwata on Saturday, but teammate Atsushi Yanagisawa’s time in the spotlight will surely come.
The former national team striker notched his 99th J. League goal in Sanga’s 3-2 win, taking him one short of an exclusive 100 club that currently has only four members — Masashi Nakayama, Kazu Miura, Ueslei and Toshiya Fujita.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Yanagisawa will be the next to join them. Kashima Antlers striker Marquinhos — Yanagisawa’s former teammate — could also claim his 100th J. League goal when Antlers face Vegalta Sendai on Sunday, one day after Kyoto takes on Cerezo Osaka.
But regardless of who gets there first, Yanagisawa was more concerned about helping his club end an unhappy record at Yamaha Stadium last weekend. Until Nakayama’s late intervention, Sanga had never won on Jubilo’s home turf in 10 attempts.
“I heard that Kyoto had never had the chance to celebrate here,” said Yanagisawa. “So I’m glad we could today.”
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Another team savoring victory on Saturday was Shonan Bellmare, whose 2-0 win over Albirex Niigata was the Kanagawa club’s first in the top flight since August 1999.
Promoted Bellmare began the season with one draw and two heavy defeats, suggesting their stay in the first division might be a short one after a decade away.
But goals from Yuya Nakamura and Yutaka Tahara were enough to see off Albirex at Hiratsuka Stadium, prompting manager Yasuharu Sorimachi to declare his team has finally got to grips with life at the top.
“After three games the players had got used to the difference in speed, decision-making, movement and technique, so at the start of the week I told them that for us the season was starting again,” he said.
“We can’t play football like we are painting a beautiful picture, but what we can do is fight for every ball and be dogged like we were today.”
Quotable: “I wouldn’t say I’m the hero, but I want to be the type of player who can score goals and win matches.”
— FC Tokyo striker Kentaro Shigematsu looks forward to more success after scoring on his debut against Omiya Ardija.