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Monday, March 31, 2008

Antlers earn tough win to stay perfect

Staff writer

KASHIMA — Kashima Antlers maintained their perfect start to the J. League season with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Yokohama F. Marinos at Kashima Stadium on Sunday.

News photo
Kashima Antlers forward Marquinhos battles Yokohama F. Marinos defender Yusuke Tanaka for the ball during their J. League match on Sunday at Kashima Stadium. Antlers won 2-1. KYODO PHOTO

Kashima took the lead with a long-range Marquinhos strike midway through the first half, but Marinos hit back with an equally spectacular effort from Takanobu Komiyama after 68 minutes. Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara blasted a penalty against the crossbar as both teams struggled to cope with the slippery conditions, but a mistake from Yokohama defender Yuji Nakazawa gifted Kashima substitute Danilo the winning goal four minutes from time.

The win gives Antlers three league wins out of three, a blistering start to the season that has also seen the J. League champions hit 15 goals in just two Asian Champions League matches. Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliveira was happy not just with the points, but also with the way his team put an end to Marinos' own unbeaten start to the season.

"It was a very good result, because Marinos certainly will be one of the biggest fighters for the title," Oliveira said.

"I don't consider that we won three points. We won six, because we have three more than Marinos."

Antlers won the championship last season despite failing to win their first five games. With no such setback this year, Oliveira sees ominous signs for Kashima's title rivals.

"The team showed that they are very stable, and this win makes them very confident for the future," he said.

"Unfortunately Ogasawara slipped when he took his penalty, but the team showed they have the confidence in this situation to score one more. We created great chances after that, so I am very happy."

An open start to the match saw Marinos' attack struggling to connect, with striker Roni frequently giving away possession as he dropped deep in search of the ball. Midfielder Lopes aimed a scream of frustration at striker Hideo Oshima as another Yokohama move broke down in the 20th minute.

Roni and Hayuma Tanaka both went close as Marinos began to sharpen their claws, but it was Antlers who drew first blood as Ogasawara laid the ball off to Marquinhos with a cute back-heel to give the Brazilian space to let fly from 35 meters.

Both teams were content to try their luck from distance as the second half began, but it was a raid into the box from Yamase that gave Marinos their best chance to get back into the match.

The midfielder went crashing to the ground as he burst into the area, but referee Tsutomu Anazawa waved away claims for a penalty in front of Yokohama's incensed traveling support.

The rest of the match looked to be heading in Kashima's favor until Komiyama unleashed a fierce drive past goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata in the 68th minute to give Marinos the equalizer.

Oliveira threw on midfielder Danilo for Takuya Nozawa as Antlers attempted to hit back immediately, but a poor clearance almost handed Yokohama the lead as Yamase cracked a drive against the woodwork.

But Marquinhos would not stay quiet for long. The Brazilian, chasing a long ball down the left, skipped past Yuzo Kurihara, who brought the striker down inside the box with a wild swipe. Ogaswara stepped up to take the penalty, but sent the ball blazing against the crossbar as his standing foot slipped on the wet turf.

Had the miss come this time last season, Kashima might well have crumbled. But Oliveira has fashioned his side into a resilient unit, and Antlers pushed forward in search of a winning goal. Toru Araiba sent in a low cross from the left, and when Nakazawa fluffed his clearance only as far as Danilo, the Brazilian rammed the ball into the net. Oliveira is confident his team can maintain its winning pace despite a hectic start to the season.

"We played four games in a row, then had 10 days off," he said. "Now the players are ready for four or five more games. It doesn't bring so much damage at this stage of the season. We have enough energy."

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