Antlers reach J. League final

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Mu Kanazaki struck in the 50th minute to send Kashima Antlers into the J. League Championship final against Urawa Reds with a 1-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday.

Antlers qualified for the playoffs after finishing third in the overall table — a full 13 points behind second-place Frontale — and would have been eliminated had the match at Todoroki Stadium ended in a draw due to their lower ranking.

But Kanazaki glanced home a header from Shuto Yamamoto’s cross to give Kashima the lead early in the second half, and a rock-solid defensive effort took care of the rest to send the seven-time champions into the two-legged final against Urawa.

“We knew we would have to play this way to get to the final,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii. “However the match played out, we were in a situation where we had to score at least one more goal than they did. The players carried out their jobs right to the letter for the full 90 minutes.”

Antlers will face top-seeded Urawa, which finished 15 points ahead of them in first place in the overall table, in the first leg at Kashima Stadium on Nov. 29 before playing the return leg at Saitama Stadium on Dec. 3.

“We knew that if we conceded first today then things would be very difficult for us, so we were determined to score first and I’m glad it turned out that way,” said Kashima defender Gen Shoji, who led a heroic rearguard effort and denied Frontale with a crucial block late in the second half.

“We went looking for goals and we knew that in the worst-case scenario we would be left with me against two of their forwards. That’s difficult when you’re playing Frontale, but we needed to take risks and I was prepared for it.”

Frontale began the match with captain and inspiration Kengo Nakamura nursing an injury on the bench, but the midfielder replaced Tatsuya Hasegawa in the 21st minute as Antlers threatened to take an early lead.

Ryota Nagaki bent a free kick just wide of the post as Kashima finished the first half strongly, and the visitors made the breakthrough five minutes after the restart when Kanazaki met Yamamoto’s cross from the left to beat Frontale goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong.

“We were aiming to get crosses into the near and far posts,” said Yamamoto. “I managed to hit it well and Mu finished it off. I didn’t see him coming but I knew he would be running toward the near post.”

Nakamura burst into the box before firing a shot into the side netting as Frontale looked for a response, and teammate Elsinho fared no better when he tried his luck in the 70th minute.

But the home side ran into a Kashima defense that was determined not to give up its advantage, and Frontale’s last chance came and went when Shogo Taniguchi headed over the crossbar deep into injury time.

“I can’t think about anything right now,” said Nakamura, who was looking to lead Kawasaki to its first-ever title after finishing as runners-up three times.

“The sense of loss is just too great. All I can think about are the chances that I should have scored but didn’t. The supporters made it a great atmosphere but we couldn’t produce the result. That’s all there is to it.”

Antlers now have the chance to win a title that few would have thought possible at the end of the regular season. The Ibaraki side guaranteed itself a place in the playoffs by winning the first stage, but proceeded to self-destruct over the second half of the season and finished only one point ahead of fourth-place Gamba Osaka in the overall table.

“I haven’t really had time to analyze why we had such an up-and-down season,” said Ishii, who missed Kashima’s game against Yokohama F. Marinos on Aug. 27 with anxiety issues after clashing with Kanazaki in the previous match.

“After the first stage, I don’t know if it was me or the whole team, but perhaps we felt a little bit safe and that came out in our performances. Also there was only one week between the first and second stages, and I think we could have approached it better.

“But we were in good form right at the end of the season, and in the Emperor’s Cup as well. The feeling we had before started coming back for me and for the players.”