Defending J. League champions Kashima Antlers returned to the scene of last season’s title triumph to haunt Urawa Reds with a 1-0 win on Thursday.

Mu Kanazaki scored in the 24th minute at Saitama Stadium to maintain Antlers’ stranglehold over Urawa, having recovered from a two-goal deficit to win last season’s championship final on away goals against the same opposition.

“We’ve been talking about this win being so big it’s like it’s worth six points,” said Kashima defender Gen Shoji. “Urawa are always involved in the title race and if you don’t beat the other teams at the top, there’s no way you will win the title.”

Antlers finished 15 points behind Urawa in last season’s overall table but qualified for the playoffs and went on to beat Kawasaki Frontale and Reds to claim their record eighth J. League title.

The J. League has since returned to a single-league system for this year’s championship, and Kanazaki’s goal, combined with a solid defensive effort from Kashima, sent Antlers above Urawa into first place in the table.

“Reds were in first place going into the game, and they attack a lot and score a lot of goals,” said Kashima midfielder Leo Silva. “So to not concede any goals against a team like that gives us a lot of confidence in our own defensive organization.

“If we concede in the next game or draw or lose, that all goes to waste. So we have to keep it going and make sure we keep improving defensively.”

Reds went into the match still smarting from a 1-0 defeat to rock-bottom local rivals Omiya Ardija last Sunday, and failed to score for a second straight game despite having racked up 24 goals in their eight preceding matches.

“As so often happens against Kashima, we conceded the first goal and from there it is not easy,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “We didn’t play badly. We created chances but we just needed our decision-making and accuracy to be a little better.

“For the last three weeks we have had a very busy schedule and we haven’t been able to train as we usually do. I think that’s one reason why we haven’t been able to score in our last two games. We practice our moves and combinations over and over again in training, and not being able to do that has thrown us off a little.”

Reds showed they were up for the battle when forward Rafael Silva pumped his fists at the Kashima bench following a sliding tackle early in the first half, but it was the visitors who took the lead.

Kanazaki received the ball outside the box but managed to dribble his way forward before firing off a shot that deflected off Urawa defender Ryota Moriwaki and bounced past goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.

“I’m glad it went in,” said Kanazaki, who also scored twice against Reds in last year’s championship final. “The team came together and fought for this result.”

Moriwaki almost got his revenge with a searing volley that just missed its target as the first half moved into injury time, and Tomoya Ugajin and Rafael Silva also went close as Reds came out after the interval with all guns blazing.

“We made chances but it was just the final pass or that little bit of accuracy that was missing,” said Rafael Silva.

Urawa’s Tomoaki Makino then saw a shot bounce agonizingly against the post in the 75th minute, but Antlers kept their discipline and held firm to see out the win in front of a noisy holiday crowd of 57,447.

“Communication is very important,” said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii. “When you have to defend for such a long time, you have to be very patient and communicate well. The players who came off the bench also understood what they had to do and they did very well for the team.”

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