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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009

Antlers begin quest to defend J. League title


Staff writer

Kashima Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira is hoping his team can lay down a marker for the rest of the J. League season in Saturday's curtain-raising Fuji Xerox Super Cup clash against Gamba Osaka.

News photo
Ready to go: Kashima Antlers midfielder Takeshi Aoki and Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo will meet in the season-opening Fuji Xerox Super Cup on Saturday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Kashima will be chasing a record third straight league title when the campaign gets under way next weekend, and also have ambitions of adding a first Asian Champions League crown to the trophy cabinet. But Oliveira knows success will not come easy, and welcomes the heavyweight challenge of Emperor's Cup-holder Gamba as a tuneup for the season ahead.

"I think Gamba is a very strong side and a very high level of competition for the first match of the season," he said on Friday.

"If we succeed, we will be very optimistic to continue for the first part of the season. We have a lot of big games to start with, and I think tomorrow's game will be something that looks like what we are going to face in the near future."

Last season's Super Cup match descended into chaos when referee Masaaki Iemoto dished out three red cards and seven more yellows, disallowed two Kashima goals and ordered three Sanfrecce Hiroshima penalties — including two in the game-deciding shootout — to be retaken.

Oliveira had harsh words for the official that day, but kept his counsel on Friday by offering only: "I think tomorrow is another occasion."

But the Brazilian was more animated when discussing the prospects of 18-year-old Yuya Osako, who is set to take his place on the bench for Saturday's match.

The striker's performances in the recent national high school championships sparked a frenzy of hype from local media, but Oliveira insists his young prodigy needs to be given room to breathe.

"I think people here speak too much about this player," he said. "We have to stop otherwise it will interrupt his career.

"People here need to know how to deal with this situation. He is just a beginner. He has a lot to show and he needs space to fulfill his career."

Gamba's new strike duo Leandro and Cho Jae Jin are unavailable through injury for Saturday's match, but manager Akira Nishino is nonetheless looking forward to locking horns with last season's top team.

"It is an honor to be playing the J. League champion," he said. "We had to dig deep to win the Emperor's Cup and earn the right to play in this match, so we have to make sure we show the kind of soccer we know we are capable of playing.

"We are not at full strength but people still have expectations of us. We will give it our all in tomorrow's game."

No team has won the J. League three times in a row, and having kept his title-winning side together over the offseason, Oliveira has grounds to believe the record is his for the taking.

But the Brazilian is taking nothing for granted, and expects a strong challenge from more than just the traditional powerhouse teams.

"It is too far away from the 5th of December," he said. "We have to play each match, and I hope near the end I will have a better answer."



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