Kashima Antlers are one step away from long-desired Asian glory after a testy but emphatic 2-0 win over Iran’s Persepolis in the first leg of the 2018 AFC Champions League final on Saturday.

Former 2002 World Cup venue Kashima Stadium in Ibaraki Prefecture was as fitting an opening stage as any in the two-legged battle to determine Asia’s top club, with 35,022 packing the stands including around a thousand fans cheering for the visitors from Tehran.

Kashima’s starters were well-rested after what was essentially a two-week break from their last match, with the team’s second-string players carrying the load in a 1-0 J. League first-division win against Cerezo Osaka on Wednesday.

The home defense was tested early and frequently, with Jung Seung-hyun blocking an early attempt by striker Ali Alipour with his face and goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae forced to tip an effort by Ahmad Noorollahi over the crossbar just minutes later.

The momentum seemed clearly in the visitors’ favor in the 11th minute, when Antlers striker Hiroki Abe’s hard tug on Bashar Resan’s uniform was perhaps the only thing that prevented a one-on-one chance on goal for the Iraqi attacker.

“It was a red card, and in the second half we should have gotten a penalty for their foul on No. 88 (Siamak Nemati)” said Persepolis manager Branko Ivankovic. “We tried to play the same (aggressive style) in the second half, but Kashima was aggressive and the referees didn’t call a lot of fouls, giving them a chance to press and an easier chance to score goals.”

Kashima settled down in due course behind its renowned defense and slowly made progress up the field, creating a number of promising — if non-threatening — set pieces in the final third. Until Serginho’s 31st-minute attempt on goal forced a sliding clearance by a Persepolis defender, the most dramatic moment of the first half was a 22nd-minute pitch invader — a rare sight in Japanese stadia — waving an Iranian flag until he was at last subdued by security near the halfway line.

Having successfully shut down the Persepolis attack, Kashima came out of the halftime locker room and set out to give the crowd what it came for.

“I felt that we were too defensive in the first half. Both flanks were dropping down slightly more than I wanted,” reflected Antlers manager Go Oiwa. “We needed to be confident and brave. In the second half we raised our defensive line, and we also created a compact midfield because Persepolis were coming at us fast and strong.”

In the 58th minute it was Leo Silva who broke the deadlock, engaging in a clever one-two with midfielder Shoma Doi before ripping a low shot into the bottom left corner where goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand could not hope to reach.

“It’s usual to feel a bit of nervousness or physical tightness in a situation like a final, but you have to do something,” the Brazilian said. “Anything can happen in this match and we came in with a good mental state.

“The coach asked us for intensity over 90 minutes, and in the middle of the second half our opponents became a little fatigued and we kept up our intensity and scored.”

Antlers attacker Serginho, who had exploded for four goals in four knockout stage matches since his midsummer arrival, made it 2-0 in the 70th minute when from the edge of the six-yard box he cleverly chipped in Kento Misao’s assist.

“He knows how to use the players around him very well,” Oiwa said in praise of his newfound ace. “Since he’s arrived he’s gained a great understanding of his teammates, and in return he’s earned their confidence. This has led to great performances and goals.”

The remaining 20 minutes were set aside for Antlers to soak up pressure and avoid being goaded by the West Asian representatives, who were reduced to 10 men in the 92nd minute when midfielder Nemati was shown a second yellow card.

A late fracas near the visitor’s bench at the end of stoppage time, in which a Persepolis substitute was seen swinging a punch at Leo Silva, hinted at the intimidating atmosphere that Kashima players will face as they travel to the notoriously boisterous Azadi Stadium for the return leg on Nov. 10 in Tehran.

“It’s always easier to play at home than away, and we will play in front of 80,000 spectators who are always our 12th player,” Ivankovic said. “I hope in front of them we can beat Kashima and we will try to become champions.”

Before Antlers depart for Iran, they will face relegation-threatened Kashiwa Reysol in a rescheduled first-division fixture, making it four games in two weeks for the J. League veterans as they look to achieve continental glory for the first time.

“Four games in two weeks is tough for us, but the players aren’t making excuses,” Oiwa said. “There’s a good mood in the dressing room and it’s our job to play the games in front of us.

“Against Cerezo (on Wednesday) we were able to get a result and that momentum connected to today’s win. We want to repeat that against Kashiwa Reysol.”

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