KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – Urawa Reds manager Mihailo Petrovic hailed his ring-rusty players for shaking off the cobwebs of almost a month on the sidelines to claim a 1-0 win over Kashima Antlers in the first leg of the J. League Championship final on Tuesday.
Urawa took a big step toward its first league title in 10 years after Yuki Abe scored a 57th-minute penalty at Kashima Stadium to give the Saitama side a slender lead to take into Saturday’s return leg.
But Petrovic was left fuming at the competition schedule after his team, which claimed a direct place in the final after finishing first in the overall league table, was forced to wait almost a month to play the title match after completing its league program on Nov. 3.
Urawa has played only one official game since then — a Nov. 12 Emperor’s Cup defeat to Kawasaki Frontale — while Antlers, who finished 15 points behind Reds in third place in the overall table, went into the final fresh off a J. League Championship semifinal win over Frontale just six days earlier.
“I’ve been a manager for 22 years and I’ve never experienced a schedule like this before,” said Petrovic. “It was very difficult to know what to say to the players and how to motivate them in training and maintain their concentration and sense of urgency.
“We were looking for teams to play training games against but most of them had shut down for their holidays and all we could find were university teams. It’s been a long, stressful season and the players were mentally and physically close to zero.
“Kashima played the semifinal less than a week ago so they had the advantage of having the feel for a real game. But my players’ concentration and discipline were there from the start and we managed to control the opposition and limit their chances. We were lacking something in attack. Our buildup play was good but we couldn’t find the last pass or the finish, but to win 1-0 away from home is a good result.”
Urawa made the breakthrough when Kashima defender Daigo Nishi was adjudged to have pushed striker Shinzo Koroki to the ground early in the second half, and Abe stepped up to dispatch his spot kick high beyond the reach of goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata.
“It wasn’t a foul, I didn’t touch him,” said Nishi. “I defended the way I’ve always done, and it wasn’t a foul. I think Koroki knows that too.”
Koroki admitted that the penalty decision could have gone in Kashima’s favor, but teammate Yuki Muto warned that luck could even itself out in Saturday’s second leg.
“It happened behind me,” Muto said of the penalty decision. “I went to the near post and Koroki went down behind me. I didn’t see it so I can’t say anything. But we’ve had lots of penalty calls go against us so we have to be careful in the next game.
“We did feel a little uneasy about not having played for a while but we didn’t allow it to affect us. We’ve had training games, and when the game started it didn’t feel as if there was a big blank space since our last real game.”
The rules of the competition mean that Reds can clinch their second league title even if they lose the second leg 1-0. Antlers must score at least two goals to stand any chance of winning a record eighth J. League title, but manager Masatada Ishii is not throwing in the towel yet.
“We were at home and the minimum requirement was to keep a clean sheet, and it’s disappointing that we weren’t able to do that,” said Ishii. “But this is just the end of the first half, and now we have three days to get ready for the next game.
“The way we played after we conceded the goal was ideal. We went looking to win the ball and move it about to stretch their defense. I made substitutions with that in mind, and the players who came on did exactly what I asked of them. That has heightened my expectations ahead of the next game.”
This year’s J. League champion also claims a place in the Dec. 8-18 Club World Cup in Japan, with a potential final matchup against Spanish giants Real Madrid the prize for the winner.
“Of course I want to play in the Club World Cup and of course I want to play against Real Madrid, but as a player you never say something like that,” said Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino.
“First we have to concentrate on these two games. Today’s game is finished and next we have another one. I always get asked to be on TV or do events for the Club World Cup, but I want to actually play in it.”
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