Defending J. League champions Kawasaki Frontale rubbed more salt into Kashima Antlers’ wounds with a resounding 4-1 win over last season’s runners-up on Saturday.

Frontale, who snatched the title from under Kashima’s noses on the final day of last season, took a fifth-minute lead at Todoroki Stadium through a Kento Misao own goal before doubling their advantage early in the second half with a superb individual strike from Eduardo Neto.

Substitute Ryota Nagaki pulled a goal back for Kashima with a direct free kick in the 64th minute, but Frontale nipped the fightback in the bud just a minute later when Kengo Nakamura latched onto an ill-judged back pass to score his team’s third.

Substitute Yoshito Okubo then wrapped things up with a fourth goal in the 81st minute, lifting Frontale up to third in the table after nine games of the season.

“I didn’t spend too much time talking about the small details with the players,” said Frontale manager Toru Oniki. “The main thing was for them to play with feeling. They did that until the final whistle.

“We knew that Kashima isn’t a team that just waits for you, so we knew we had to match up to them in terms of power. We haven’t been getting the results but we didn’t think that made us a bad team. We knew that if we could match them for power we could deliver a big performance. We had that confidence in ourselves.”

Kashima blew a four-point lead with two games remaining to hand Frontale the title on goal difference last season, and the eight-time champions have made an erratic start to the new campaign.

The Antlers currently sit in 11th place after three wins, two draws and four losses, and their cause was not helped against Frontale by a 77th-minute red card for defender Gen Shoji.

“You all saw what happened,” said Antlers manager Go Oiwa. “We conceded at the start of both the first and second half and that hurt us a lot. But we kept going with 10 men and I have to praise the players for that.

“We let Frontale’s players run free. We didn’t pick them up when they ran into spaces. We warned the players that that was their strong point but they let them get free and we have to reflect on that.”

Frontale took the lead in the fifth minute when Akihiro Ienaga sent a low cross into the Kashima box and Misao slid in to misdirect the ball past goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae. It was Kashima’s third own goal in its last four J. League games.

“We’ve conceded a lot of own goals, but more damagingly than that we’ve conceded a lot of early goals,” said Kashima defender Atsuto Uchida. “When this one went in there was an air of ‘oh no, not again.’ “

Frontale doubled their lead in the 47th minute when Eduardo Neto took a pass from Hiroyuki Abe, skipped into the box, beat defender Itsuki Oda and slipped the ball past Kwoun all in one fluid attacking move.

“Abe spotted my run and gave me a great pass,” said Eduardo Neto. “But I’m more happy about the team getting the win than I am about scoring that goal.”

Nagaki hauled Kashima back into the game when he floated a direct free kick past goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, who stayed rooted to the spot.

But the visitors immediately threw their lifeline away when 19-year-old rookie Oda attempted a suicidal pass-back with Nakamura lurking, and the veteran needed no second invitation to score his second goal of the season.

“Our heads didn’t drop when we conceded the goal — we went right back out there, and that was crucial,” said Oniki. “I want us to keep showing that mental strength in the games to come.”

Kashima’s misery was compounded when Shoji earned his second yellow card for a crunching foul on Okubo, who promptly dusted himself off and slotted home a pass from Ienaga four minutes later.

“It was a good feeling,” said Okubo, who scored his first goal at Todoroki since rejoining the team after a one-year stint at FC Tokyo last season.

Elsewhere in the J. League, Sanfrecce Hiroshima kept up their phenomenal early-season form with a 1-0 win over Sagan Tosu — their eighth win in nine games.

FC Tokyo also maintained its good form with a 1-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse, while high-flying Vegalta Sendai stumbled to a 3-0 defeat to Jubilo Iwata.

Yokohama F. Marinos and Shonan Bellmare played out a remarkable 4-4 draw that featured seven first-half goals and a hat trick for Yokohama’s Hugo Vieira, Urawa Reds drew 0-0 with Consadole Sapporo, and Lukas Podolski scored twice as Vissel Kobe cruised to a 3-0 win over struggling Nagoya Grampus.

In the day’s late game, Hwang Ui-jo scored in the 41st minute as Gamba Osaka beat Cerezo Osaka 1-0.

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