SAITAMA – Kashima Antlers claimed their record eighth J. League title after coming from behind to stun Urawa Reds 2-1 in the championship final second leg on Saturday and win on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Antlers, who qualified for the playoffs by finishing third in the overall table a full 15 points behind first-place Urawa, lost Tuesday’s home first leg 1-0 and fell further behind when Shinzo Koroki gave Reds a seventh minute lead in the return game at Saitama Stadium.
But Mu Kanazaki handed Kashima a lifeline with the equalizer five minutes before halftime, before Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino tripped Kashima substitute Yuma Suzuki in the box in the 79th minute and Kanazaki stepped up to drill home the resulting penalty.
“I’m so happy,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii. “Regardless of how the overall league table finished, we knew that the team that won the J. League Championship would win the title. I’m delighted that we were able to do it.
“This is a result of the strength of the players and everyone connected with the club. All I can say is how happy I am. I’m so proud of the players.”
Antlers booked their place in the postseason playoffs by winning the regular-season first stage, but proceeded to fall apart in the second stage and finished 13 points behind second-place Kawasaki Frontale in the overall table.
But a 1-0 win over Frontale in the championship semifinal gave Antlers the chance to claim an unlikely first title in seven years in the final, and Kanazaki’s late penalty stunned an Urawa side looking to end a decade-long championship drought.
“We would have liked to have finished top of the overall table but the rules are the rules and a win is a win,” said Antlers midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara, who picked up his seventh league-winner’s medal. “The most important thing was to all stick together like we did tonight.
“We all believed in each other, helped each other out and did everything we could to win. I think that part of our game showed tonight. I’m really happy but it’s also an important title in terms of putting us on the road to winning more. I think we can get even stronger.”
Reds made two changes to their starting lineup, with Takahiro Sekine and Toshiyuki Takagi replacing Yoshiaki Komai and Tadanari Lee, while Kashima brought in fit-again playmaker Gaku Shibasaki for Atsutaka Nakamura.
Takagi almost made an immediate impact when he hit a shot that deflected wide in the fourth minute, but the 25-year-old remained in the thick of the action to set up the opener three minutes later.
Takagi picked out Koroki completely unmarked in the Kashima box, and the former Antlers man cracked home a ferocious volley to spark delirious celebrations among the home crowd.
Yuki Muto hit the crossbar as the home side threatened to run riot and Antlers began to get frustrated, with Kanazaki involving himself in a series of squabbles with the Urawa players.
A vital block by Gen Shoji then prevented Muto from doubling Urawa’s lead, and Antlers put themselves right back in contention when Kanazaki met Yasushi Endo’s cross to the back post with a diving header for the equalizer in the 40th minute.
“It was a great cross from Yasu,” said Kanazaki, who also scored the semifinal winner against Frontale. “All I had to do was turn it in.”
Antlers began the second half confidently, and Daigo Nishi headed a Gaku Shibasaki free kick wide as the away side pushed hard for the goal that would put them within touching distance of the title.
The visitors got their chance when Yuki Abe lost the ball and allowed Suzuki to set off on a run, and Makino brought the striker down inside the box to give Kashima the penalty. Kanazaki made no mistake from the spot, lashing the ball past the reach of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
Reds threw everything forward in search of the goal that would put them back in the driving seat, but Muto blazed over the bar deep in injury time to give Antlers the title.
“We had ups and downs all year,” said Kanazaki. “But I’m happy that we were able to finish it off in the best way possible.”
Antlers also qualified for the Club World Cup with the win, and will face Oceania champion Auckland City of New Zealand in the tournament’s opening game in Yokohama on Thursday.