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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Defending champion Antlers defeat Reds in intense opener


Staff writer

KASHIMA, Ibaraki Pref. — Kashima Antlers landed the first blow of the 2009 J. League season as the reigning champions beat Urawa Reds 2-0 in a ferocious opening-day battle of the big guns on Saturday.

News photo
Kicking off: Kashima Antlers midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara fights Urawa Reds forward Tatsuya Tanaka for the ball during Saturday's J. League season opener at Kashima Stadium. Antlers won 2-0. KYODO PHOTO

Takuya Nozawa gave Antlers a 23rd-minute lead after Reds had been denied a penalty for an apparent trip on 17-year-old debutant Genki Haraguchi, before Marquinhos doubled Kashima's lead early in the second half.

Both teams went for the jugular in a full-blooded contest at Kashima Stadium, but Antlers' championship class shone through as Oswaldo Oliveira's men flexed their muscles to finish the game comfortably in control.

After hammering Gamba Osaka 3-0 in last weekend's Fuji Xerox Super Cup, Oliveira was purring over his team's efficiency.

"This start was good for us," he said. "We played two games in a row against two of the best teams in Japan, and we won both without conceding any goals. I'm particularly happy because our team has demonstrated a very good balance.

"In both games our defense was very stable and our midfield was good at neutralizing the opponent. This gives me a lot of hope for the future."

Urawa's aggressive start to the match was a far cry from its last outing — a 6-1 home drubbing by Yokohama F. Marinos on the final day of the 2008 season — but new manager Volker Finke saw little consolation in defeat.

"I feel bad but we didn't score so we can't cry about it," he said. "The first half and 10 or 15 minutes of the second half were good but it wasn't enough.

"It's a pity that the referee didn't give a penalty, because I'm sure it was a penalty. To lead in this game is very important because that is another situation. But when Kashima play for the counterattack and when they lead it is very difficult."

Haraguchi looked unfazed by becoming Urawa's youngest-ever player when he surged into the Kashima box in the fifth minute, but referee Yuichi Nishimura waved play on as the midfielder hit the deck.

The first-half pace was furious enough for Kashima's Atsuto Uchida not to notice he had lost a boot amid the maelstrom, and the right back duly launched himself into another tackle as both team refused to give anything away for free.

But as Reds pushed forward for a free kick, Antlers launched a lightning response. Goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata picked out Marquinhos with a long kick, and the Brazilian skinned Tadaaki Hirakawa before sending a low ball through for Nozawa to turn in.

Urawa grabbed the bull by the horns in search of an equalizer, but Kashima went closest to scoring again before the break when Nozawa forced a diving save from Ryota Tsuzuki with a curling free kick bound for the top corner.

Hajime Hosogai headed over as Reds began the second half with the same attacking intent, but Kashima's answer was just as ruthless.

Marquinhos controlled a cross-field pass racing toward goal, and with the Urawa defense backing off from the tackle, the Brazilian arrowed a clinical shot into the bottom corner.

The quick, tidy passing that had served Reds so well began to unravel as the game became more frantic, and what had started as an even contest turned into a display of Kashima's poise and an ominous early sign for the rest of the league's championship pretenders.

In the day's other games, Montedio Yamagata celebrated its first appearance in the top flight with an astonishing 6-2 demolition of Jubilo Iwata, while fellow new boys Sanfrecce Hiroshima also made a bright start, beating Marinos 4-2.

Albirex Niigata thrashed FC Tokyo 4-1 away from home, and Gamba Osaka also notched a comfortable 3-0 win at JEF United Chiba. Nagoya Grampus came from behind to beat Oita Trinita 3-2, while Kawasaki Frontale and Kashiwa Reysol played out a 1-1 draw.



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