Kashima Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira believes the frustration of missing out on a fourth straight J. League title was the driving force behind his team’s 2-1 win over Shimizu S-Pulse in the Emperor’s Cup final on Saturday.

Antlers surrendered their league title to Nagoya Grampus in November and slipped to an eventual fourth-place finish, meaning only a win in the New Year’s Day showpiece would be enough to qualify for a berth in next season’s Asian Champions League.

Fellype Gabriel put Kashima ahead with a 26th-minute header at Tokyo’s National Stadium only for Frode Johnsen to pull S-Pulse level midway through the second half, but a brilliant free kick from Takuya Nozawa settled matters with 13 minutes remaining and left Oliveira in no doubt where his players’ motivation lay.

“The players were very sad,” the Brazilian said after winning the Emperor’s Cup for the second time in his career. “In the last round of J. League games we dropped another place to become fourth, outside the Asian Champions League places.

“We had to win today, and this gave me more support to improve the work with the players. Of course this is something I used daily to make them wish to win the Emperor’s Cup.”

The match looked to be heading toward extra time after Norwegian striker Johnsen stretched to poke a Takuya Honda through ball over the head of Kashima goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata in the 59th minute, but Nozawa intervened to give Antlers their 14th piece of silverware with a stunning strike from the edge of the penalty area.

“It’s a great start to the year,” the midfielder said. “We were determined to qualify for the Asian Champions League and it was up to us to go out and do it. It’s a shame we couldn’t win a fourth league title in a row, but this makes up for it.”

The game marked the end for S-Pulse manager Kenta Hasegawa, who stepped down after six years at the helm of the Shizuoka club, and stalwart players Teruyoshi Ito and Daisuke Ichikawa, who have both been released and will now join promoted Ventforet Kofu.

“First of all I want to say thanks to all the fans, players and everyone connected to the club for six years of support,” said Hasegawa, who lost at the same venue in the final of the 2008 Nabisco Cup. “It’s been a great six years.

“As for the game, the first half was Kashima’s. They just didn’t let us do anything. In the second half we started to create more chances and stretch their defense, and with two strikers we were able to get the equalizer.

“If you look at the score you can see we were beaten by a strong Antlers team. But I have no regrets, and I want to see this team coming back to fight another day.”

Also bidding farewell was Kashima defender Go Oiwa, who watched his last game before retirement as an unused substitute. Oliveira was unable to give the 38-year-old the send-off he felt he deserved, but nonetheless paid tribute to a remarkable 15-year career.

“I had planned to bring Oiwa on, and to have him finish the game wearing the captain’s armband would have been perfect,” Oliveira said. “But we had to be sure of winning the game, and tactically I couldn’t do it. I have only known him for four years, but as a player and as a person he is exceptional.”

Saturday’s Emperor’s Cup success maintained Oliveira’s record of winning at least one title every season since joining Kashima in 2007, but the Brazilian was not satisfied as he reflected on the year gone by.

“2010 was bad, but 2011 has started very well,” he said. “My feeling is that we had all the conditions to win the J. League. We drew 12 matches that we should have won at least six of. Our defense was the best in the league, and we beat the champions twice.

“My feeling is that we could have been much better. We could have been champions for the fourth year in a row.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.