KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – Kashima Antlers would need a miracle to end the season with their fourth J. League title in five years, but that does not mean striker Yuzo Tashiro is prepared to write the campaign off as a bust just yet.
With damage to Kashima Stadium forcing the club into a temporary life on the road in the wake of the March 11 earthquake, Antlers’ bid to wrest the crown they held from 2007-09 back from Nagoya Grampus got off to a difficult start with just five points from their opening six games.
But as spring turned into summer and results failed to improve, concerns began to grow that even the seven-time champions were not immune from being dragged into a relegation dogfight.
Then, after a chastening 4-1 home loss to Gamba Osaka in late July, something finally clicked. A run of eight unbeaten games has lifted Antlers up to sixth in the table, with 11 points separating them from third place and a berth in next season’s Asian Champions League with eight matches remaining.
A key factor in the revival has been the form of Tashiro. The 29-year-old returned from a yearlong loan at Montedio Yamagata last season, and has responded with 11 goals, including six in Kashima’s last eight games.
With Urawa Reds next up at Kashima Stadium on Saturday, Tashiro is keen to maintain that momentum.
“If we don’t win this game, then we we’ve got no chance of getting a place in the Asian Champions League, so we have to take all three points,” he said at Kashima’s training ground earlier this week. “More than going unbeaten for eight games, the thing that is on our minds is that our last two games have been draws. Nothing less than a win will be good enough on Saturday, and that’s all we’re thinking about.
“When we were going through a bad patch, we were conceding stupid goals and giving the ball away too easily. Now we are passing it around well, and we always want to play at our own pace. As we have won more and more our confidence has returned, and I think that has been the most important factor.”
Whether Antlers can close the gap remains to be seen, but then two months ago the Ibaraki side’s targets were significantly more modest. Kashima sat just two points off the relegation places after defeat to Kashiwa Reysol on July 23, and after staving off the drop with Montedio last season, Tashiro was taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t think the other players thought this way, but I played at Yamagata last season and experienced what a relegation battle was like,” he said. “If you don’t get on top of the situation, then you slip further into trouble, just like Urawa Reds have done this season. But because everyone here was determined to get out of it, we have been able to climb up the table. It was a real danger.”
With Montedio relying on Tashiro for inspiration and leadership last season, his year in the mountains sharpened more than just his survival skills.
“At Antlers, if I don’t do the business then someone else will,” said Tashiro, who scored 10 goals for Montedio. “But at Yamagata, if I didn’t score then we would lose, and if I did score we would have a chance. I was very aware in every game that I needed to score otherwise we would be relegated.
“As a striker the most important thing is to score goals. I was able to do that last year and I wanted to keep it going when I came back to Antlers. I learned a lot about what it is to be a striker.”
Returning to Kashima, however, Tashiro found himself with big boots to fill. Brazilian striker Marquinhos left the club over the winter after four seasons and 59 league goals, but with fellow forwards Shinzo Koroki and Yuya Osako still around to share the load, Tashiro was not concerned.
“I don’t feel any particular pressure,” he said. “I know the fans expect to see a player like Marquinhos, but I am a completely different type of player. I want to show what I can do, and I would like to be judged on that rather than on what Marquinhos could do.
“Marquinhos could dribble and score all on his own, but if the strikers here now were asked to do that, it would be difficult. But all the strikers know that together we have to prove we can be as effective for the team as Marquinhos was.”
And as a member of the team that won its final nine games to overhaul a 10-point gap and pip Urawa for the 2007 title, Tashiro knows that nothing — no matter how improbable — can ever be ruled out.
“We haven’t given up on the title just yet, but a more realistic aim is to get third place,” he said. “We want to keep putting pressure on the teams above us, and I think it’s possible to close the gap before the end of the season.
“In 2007 we were behind by something like 10 points, and while there is a chance there is always a chance. The important thing is not to make any mistakes, keep believing, and take every game as it comes.”