SUITA, OSAKA PREF. - Once again, Kashima Antlers banked on the experience and savvy that has led to a record eight J. League championships, when they beat Mamelodi Sundowns 2-0 on Sunday to book a place in the Club World Cup semifinals.
While Mu Kanazaki, who came off the bench to score Antlers’ second goal, to put the game to bed, was named man of the match, it was goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata who gave Kashima the chance to stage its second-half turnaround after sustained pressure from Sundowns in the first half.
Sogahata, at 37, is the club’s second oldest player after midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara. But on Sunday night, Sogahata looked evergreen, producing a string of saves to keep Sundowns off the scoreboard at halftime before Yasushi Endo and Kanazaki secured Antlers’ passage into the last four.
“It was pretty big we didn’t concede then,” Sogahata said, referring to the first half, when Sundowns overwhelmed Kashima, which could have easily been down by two or three had it not been for the ‘keeper’s heroics.
“They were putting us under a lot of pressure and not allowing them a goal kept us in the game for the second half.
“Needless to say, you have to win in order to advance. But it’s very important for the club because it gives you the experience of playing tougher opponents in pressure situations. Games like these count for a lot.”
The Kashima players praised Sogahata, who, like former league MVP Ogasawara, has spent his entire career with the club.
“(Sogahata) really bailed us out in the first half because I couldn’t stay focused,” said central defender Gen Shoji, who had his front tooth broken in the first half and has lapses in his concentration because of the pain.
“We got pushed around a lot, but (Sogahata) led us at the back and not conceding was key. I think it would’ve been really difficult for us had we given up a goal.”
Much has been made of Kashima’s winning tradition since Masatada Ishii’s men defeated Urawa Reds — who won more points than any other team in the J. League this season — in the two-legged final of the championship playoffs. Kashima was third in the overall table, 15 points behind Urawa.
Kashima seems to know when to turn it on, as it did this year. Antlers won the first stage to secure a berth for the postseason and, while they were 11th in the second stage, found a way to win the league — despite losing the first leg of the championship final 1-0 at home against Urawa.
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane said winning is coded in Kashima’s DNA, as he felt it was even before the two sides clashed Sunday.
Over the course of Antlers’ history, players like Sogahata have helped ingrain the winners’ mentality into the club, which is sure to come in handy on Wednesday when Kashima faces South American champion Atletico Nacional.
“I told you before, the mentality of the team is a strong team,” Mosimane said. “The longer they stay on the game, the stronger they become — and they use one chance all the time.
“The last game they played to win their league and to qualify, same game tonight — two games that ended in the last 10, 15 minutes. If I have a chance to play this team again, we have to make sure to score early so they become desperate and come on top. But after they score, they protect the goal and keep their shape.”