OSAKA – J. League champions Kashima Antlers will be looking to complete a remarkable finish to the season with another title win when they take on Kawasaki Frontale in the final of the Emperor’s Cup on Sunday at Suita Stadium.
Few could have predicted the recent form of Japan’s most successful club after it finished the league campaign with four straight defeats and ended up in third place, a full 15 points behind first-placed Urawa Reds in the standings.
Masatada Ishii’s men showed a steely resolve in the postseason to beat Frontale 1-0 in the J. League Championship playoff semifinal and rally to defeat Reds 2-1 in the second leg of the final, winning a record eighth league crown on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.
Kashima then came within in a whisker of beating European champion Real Madrid in the final of the Club World Cup, eventually going down 4-2 in extra time, and still had enough in the tank to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 and Yokohama F. Marinos 2-0 en route to the Emperor’s Cup final.
The Antlers have been boosted by the return of midfielder Gaku Shibasaki, who recovered from illness to set up both goals for Shoma Doi and Yuma Suzuki in the semifinal against Marinos on Thursday.
“He had been under the weather but he played the full 90 minutes (against Marinos) and showed great movement,” Ishii said of Shibasaki, who scored twice in a pulsating encounter against Madrid.
“It was great that he could contribute with a pair of assists (against Marinos). I think he is in good enough condition to play in the final.
“The team is in great shape. I think there is a bit of tiredness but it is the same for our opponents,” said Ishii.
Ace striker Mu Kanazaki, who scored the winner in the playoff semi against Kawasaki and hit a double in the second leg of the final against the Reds, looks set to miss Sunday’s game as he is making his way back from a bout of flu.
“I have not made a decision on Kanazaki yet but it looks difficult for him. Playing for 90 minutes is out of the question,” said Ishii.
Kashima is in the Emperor’s Cup final for the first time since beating Shimizu S-Pulse 2-1 in the 2010 final while Kawasaki advanced to the showcase match for the first time after Shogo Taniguchi’s late goal earned a 1-0 win over Omiya Ardija.
“Omiya were very organized in defense and Kawasaki could not play to their strengths. It will be important to score the first goal,” said Ishii.
“Our aim this season was to win every title. We won the league and are in position to win the Emperor’s Cup and I want to make sure we win our 19th (domestic) title.”
Kashima midfielder Yasushi Endo said, “To some extent we know how Kawasaki will play and we just have to be calm in the final. However we do it, we just want to win the match.”
Kawasaki, whose captain Kengo Nakamura became the oldest player to win the J. League Player of the Year award this season at age 36, will be looking to give manager Yahiro Kazama a winning send-off.
The 55-year-old Kazama, boss at Frontale since 2012, is stepping down and is expected to take over as manager of relegated Nagoya Grampus next season.
“The game on New Year’s Day will be difficult but we just have to give our best and try and put on a good performance,” said Kazama.
“We also have the appetite for a fight and my players are fiercely determined. It is because we are going to play strong opponents that I am sure we will have drive.”