Antlers’ Kanazaki provides winning header against Auckland City in Club World Cup opener

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Mu Kanazaki came off the bench to score an 88th-minute winner as J. League champions Kashima Antlers beat part-timers Auckland City 2-1 on Thursday to advance to the second round of the Club World Cup.

Antlers, who qualified for the tournament by beating Urawa Reds on away goals to clinch their eighth J. League title on Saturday night, fell behind to the Oceania champions when Kim Dae-wook headed home from a free kick in the 50th minute.

But Kashima drew level when substitute Shuhei Akasaki swept home an equalizer in the 67th minute, before Kanazaki, who scored twice against Urawa on Saturday, headed in from Shoma Doi’s knock-back with two minutes remaining.

“I wanted to change the way the game was going,” said Kanazaki, who was struggling with injury and came on in the 63rd minute. “We’re representing Japan and it’s unacceptable to play like that. We need to improve and get ready for the next game.

“We want to go as far in this tournament as we can. It’s an international tournament and we have the responsibility of representing Japan, so we want to give it everything we’ve got.”

Antlers, who are appearing in the Club World Cup for the first time, will now face African champions Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa on Sunday at Suita Stadium in Osaka.

“It’s our first time in this tournament and we knew the opening game would be difficult,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii. “We conceded from a set piece but we didn’t crumble, and I knew we were capable of turning the game around and winning.

“I don’t really know too much about (Sundowns) yet but I’m sure they will be physically strong. We have to be able to deal with their size.”

Kashima put Auckland under pressure straight from the kickoff but it was the New Zealanders who had the first clear-cut chance when Emiliano Tade shot straight at goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata in the 17th minute.

A mistake by Auckland’s Japanese defender Takuya Iwata then put Yasushi Endo through, only for goalkeeper Enaut Zubikarai to deny him at the near post, before Doi shot from distance with the first half coming to a close.

Five minutes after the restart, however, Auckland took the lead. Tade swung a free kick into the Kashima box after a foul by Gen Shoji, and Kim — a part-time children’s soccer coach — outjumped South Korean compatriot Hwang Seok-ho to head it into the net.

“We talked before kickoff about how important it was to concentrate, but maybe because of the tight schedule or because of the euphoria of winning the J. League title, we weren’t able to do that,” said Antlers midfielder Ryota Nagaki, who was later named man of the match.

Kashima immediately brought Akasaki on for Fabricio, and Kanazaki soon followed him with the J. League champions pushing hard in search of an equalizer.

The changes paid off in the 67th minute when Nagaki laid the ball off into Akasaki’s path, and the 25-year-old swept the ball home to bring Antlers level.

“The manager told me at halftime that I would be coming on,” said Akasaki. “As I was watching the first half I noticed that there weren’t many shots, so I thought that I would be positive and try my luck if I came on.”

And with extra time looking inevitable, Kanazaki headed home the winner. Shuto Yamamoto raided down the left before sending in a cross, which Doi headed back across goal for Kanazaki to nod home.

“The players seemed to be a bit heavy in their movements but in the second half I was hoping that they would move quicker,” said Ishii. “We should have been more aggressive moving the ball in their half.

“We conceded a goal but then we switched up a gear and made improvements, and we won the game.”

The late goal denied Auckland the chance to emulate its achievement from two years ago, when it reached the semifinals and finished third.

“We’re a team that try to keep the ball but it was difficult because they were very aggressive,” said Auckland manager Ramon Tribulietx. “Antlers are the best team in Japan. They proved it in the championship.

“We tried to keep the ball but it didn’t happen. They made our life very hard. These things happen and it’s also human nature, when you score one goal your team tends to drop off a little bit. Changing the formation wouldn’t have worked — if we had changed it, it could have been worse.”