This year’s J. League title race has been so unpredictable that nothing can be ruled out until the final whistle, but it would take a mighty twist in the tale for Kashima Antlers to be denied the championship on Saturday.

Kashima needs only a point from its game at already-relegated Consadole Sapporo, while even defeat would deliver the title if Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale both fail to win their matches.

Triumph for Antlers would bring a sixth championship to the Kashima trophy cabinet — hot on the heels of last year’s league-and-cup double — but that does not mean success was a foregone conclusion at the start of this season.

Kashima’s 2007 title came after a club-record run of nine straight league wins, but while the team deserves credit for this impressive feat, it is undeniable that Urawa Reds’ end-of-season collapse played its part.

But if the feeling at the start of this year was that Kashima was not ready for the favorites tag, a string of accomplished performances once the season was under way began to dissolve the doubts.

Granted, Kashima has been as frustratingly inconsistent as any of the league’s leading clubs, but a solid foundation running throughout the entire squad has made the difference.

Credit for this must go to manager Oswaldo Oliveira, whose steady hand on the tiller has allowed players to come in and out of the side with almost seamless fluency.

Midfielder Danilo, who played only a cameo role in a disappointing first season last year, has grown into a key player with more time on the field.

Striker Shinzo Koroki has also impressed after supplanting Yuzo Tashiro in the starting lineup, and Masahiko Inoha has done likewise since Oliveira decided the time was right to give the youngster the nod ahead of veteran Go Oiwa.

Crucially, Tashiro, Takuya Nozawa and Masashi Motoyama have not let time on the sidelines weaken their resolve, and Antlers’ midfield strength in depth has softened the blow of captain and playmaker-in-chief Mitsuo Ogasawara’s season-ending injury in September.

But for all Oliveira’s canny use of his resources, it is the constant presence of two players that has really given Kashima the edge.

Striker Marquinhos is a cast-iron guarantee of goals, five clear of his nearest rival with 21, and right-back Atsuto Uchida — still only 20 — has been a revelation, building on his enormous promise to become a serious contender for player of the year.

Antlers’ hard work is not finished yet, however. Frontale is charging hard after eight goals without reply in its last two games, and Dragan Stojkovic’s Nagoya has been among the leading pack all season.

But if Oliveira’s men can keep their heads and clinch the championship at Sapporo Dome on Saturday, no one can say they haven’t earned it.

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