Antlers aim for historic triumph over powerful Real Madrid in Club World Cup final

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kashima Antlers midfielder Gaku Shibasaki is ready to make dreams a reality by toppling mighty Real Madrid and lifting the Club World Cup when the two teams meet in Sunday’s final.

J. League champions Antlers will become the first Asian team to play in the final when they take the field at Nissan Stadium, but the side blocking their way to the trophy could hardly be more formidable.

European champion Madrid boasts a squad packed with superstar names including newly crowned world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, is currently riding high on a club-record 36-game unbeaten run, and has lost only two games in 2016.

But Shibasaki remains undaunted having helped Kashima win three games already at the tournament, and the 24-year-old refuses to entertain thoughts of finishing second.

“I believe that we can win,” Shibasaki said on Saturday. “The job of a footballer is to give dreams to other people, and I want to give dreams to the kids and the fans who are watching us. I don’t want those people to see us not trying to realize our dreams. Of course we don’t know what will happen tomorrow but we will do our best to win.

“There is nothing special that I’m looking forward to in this match. Our captain always tells us that there is no difference between second and third place if you don’t win. You always need to become the champion. We have to win tomorrow and we want to finish off the year with a victory.”

Standing in Kashima’s way is a Madrid side that will welcome fit-again club captain Sergio Ramos back to the lineup after the defender missed Thursday’s 2-0 semifinal win over Mexican team Club America.

“If there is a chance to win a title then of course we always want to take it,” said Ramos. “We reset ourselves and start from scratch every year so we always want to win titles. Now we want to lift this trophy and take it back to our country. It has been a long road that has led us here so we definitely want to win.”

Antlers qualified for the tournament by beating Urawa Reds in the J. League Championship final despite finishing the regular season 15 points behind Reds in the overall league table. Masatada Ishii’s side has since gone from strength to strength, beating Auckland City, Mamelodi Sundowns and South American champions Atletico Nacional to set up the game of a lifetime against Madrid.

“For us to advance to the final means the level of Japanese football has developed and got closer to the level of European and South American teams,” said Ishii. “Asian football itself has developed and grown. I believe that everyone in Japan and Asia who watches the match tomorrow will be supporting us, and I’d like to be able to meet their expectations.

“I believe in my players and believe they are capable of winning. I don’t know how likely it is, but we will find out tomorrow and I believe we can do it.”

Madrid failed to impress in its opening win over Club America, taking the lead in first-half injury time through Karim Benzema before Ronaldo notched a second goal in the 93rd minute.

But manager Zinedine Zidane insists his team will be in better shape on Sunday after shaking off the effects of jet lag, and the Frenchman is keen to claim more silverware after winning the Champions League in his first season as manager.

“This trophy is very important for us,” said Zidane. “This is what we came here for, and we want to play great football. What we know is that we need to play well and it will be a difficult match. Our opponent will make us suffer but we are fully prepared for this.

“On Thursday, we had our first match and we couldn’t start off in a good way. That was partly because of a long journey and the pitch wasn’t what we thought it would be, but we are fully prepared for the final now.”

Madrid is bidding to win the Club World Cup for the second time in three years, and has the chance to claim an unprecedented quadruple of Spanish League, Spanish Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup in one season.

“We are highly motivated as a team,” said Ramos. “The atmosphere in the dressing room at the moment is great. We are making the most of what we are capable of and that is what is important tomorrow. Our coach is an excellent coach and we will show what we can do tomorrow.”

But Antlers know they have the chance to record one of the biggest upsets the soccer world has ever seen, and Shibasaki is not about to shy away from the challenge.

“There are many pages in the history of football,” said the midfielder. “We are the current generation of players and we should be looking to the future. We shouldn’t be content with what we have achieved. We want to make a new page in the history of Kashima Antlers, and that is why we are playing.”