SAITAMA – Kashima Antlers midfielder Gaku Shibasaki hailed his club’s winning DNA after capturing a record eighth J. League title against Urawa Reds on Saturday.
Antlers added another chapter to their gilded history after recovering from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the championship final and an early Urawa goal in the second to prevail 2-1 at Saitama Stadium and claim the title on away goals following a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Antlers qualified for the championship playoffs after finishing third in the overall table — 15 points behind first-place Urawa — but their trophy-hunting instincts kicked in during a 1-0 semifinal victory over Kawasaki Frontale and continued all the way to their first league title since 2009.
“I’m just a player working hard every day so I don’t really know about my own big-match mentality,” said Shibasaki, who returned from injury to start Saturday’s second leg. “But when there is a title on the line, the strength of this club really comes out. Even though the players change, the club keeps winning big titles.
“We went from being in a difficult situation to beating Kawasaki and then beating Urawa the way we did. That’s the power of this team.”
Reds looked set to win their first J. League title in 10 years when Shinzo Koroki volleyed home in the seventh minute to give Urawa a 2-0 aggregate lead, but Mu Kanazaki pulled a goal back for Antlers with a back-post header five minutes before halftime.
Kashima then completed a stunning turnaround when Kanazaki scored from the penalty spot with 11 minutes left after Tomoaki Makino had brought down Kashima substitute Yuma Suzuki in the box, and manager Masatada Ishii was left with nothing but admiration for his players’ efforts.
“We knew it would be a difficult game,” said Ishii, who became the first Japanese manager to lead Antlers to a league title after a long line of Brazilian success. “We conceded first but it didn’t change what we needed to do and the players knew what was required of them. Of course there were a lot of Reds fans here tonight and not many of our supporters, but the players did really well despite that.
“We started this season with the duty to win a title, and now that we’ve achieved that I’m truly very happy. Reds slowed down after we equalized and they began to lose their shape on their right-hand side, so that was an area we targeted.”
Kanazaki’s 40th-minute goal set Urawa’s nerves jangling going into the second half, and Suzuki took advantage by forcing Makino into a rash challenge after making a surging run into the box.
“I came on with the priority on defense, but my best qualities are in attack and I wanted to get forward,” said Suzuki, who replaced Yasushi Endo in the 58th minute despite struggling with a shoulder injury. “I haven’t played for a while and I didn’t really have a feel for the game, but I’m glad I could play my part.
“Makino was marking me but when the pass came through he left space in behind him. I could see that coming so I had belief and made my run, and after that it came down to basic dribbling technique.”
Kashima’s victory marked another painful episode in the long-suffering history of serial underachievers Urawa, and striker Yuki Muto admitted he was unsure what impact the latest setback would have on the team.
“Our season is finished now and I don’t know what comes next, but every year we fall at the final hurdle,” said Muto, who missed an injury-time chance that would have handed Urawa the title. “We’ve felt this frustration so many times and there’s no point in talking about it. There are no playoffs next season so we’ll just have to try and finish top of the table again.”
The J. League will return to the single-league format next season after using the unloved current playoff system for the past two years.
“As sportsmen we congratulate Kashima on winning the title,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “We finished the season 15 points ahead of Kashima in the overall table, then we won the first game 1-0 and lost the second game 2-1. The rules are that away goals are the tiebreaker, so we lost. I really don’t know what advantage those 15 points got us, but I don’t think that winning one game and losing one makes us losers.
“I want to say to all the players, staff and supporters that we have had a great season. I’m proud of everyone. This is not a time to be despondent — this is a time to puff out our chests and look forward.”
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.