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Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009

Koroki-led Antlers capture third straight J. League title

Staff writer

SAITAMA — Shinzo Koroki struck with a 67th-minute diving header to give Kashima Antlers a tension-drenched 1-0 win over Urawa Reds and a record third consecutive J. League title on Saturday.

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Championship hero: Shinzo Koroki scores a 67th-minute header to lead Kashima Antlers to a 1-0 victory over Urawa Reds on Saturday in Saitama. KYODO PHOTO

Antlers went into the match two points clear of sole challengers Kawasaki Frontale but knowing that only a win would suffice if Frontale beat already-relegated Kashiwa Reysol.

That scenario began to unfold as Kawasaki raced to a 3-0 halftime lead, ramping up the pressure on a Kashima side unable to break the deadlock in front of a partisan crowd of 53,783 at Saitama Stadium.

But Koroki shifted the balance back in favor of the defending champions with just over 20 minutes to play, launching himself at an Atsuto Uchida cross to send the ball past Norihiro Yamagishi for the crucial goal.

An equalizer for Reds would have turned everything on its head, but Antlers rode out a fierce final onslaught to extend their record as the J. League's most titled club with a seventh overall championship.

"Japan was a country I saw in my dreams, and to achieve something historic like this is something that I cannot express in words," said Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliveira, who has presided over the club's last three title triumphs. "It is not just a matter of my career, but also of my life."

Frontale kept up their end of the bargain despite conceding two second-half goals in their 3-2 win over Reysol, but that was little consolation for manager Takashi Sekizuka.

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Euphoric moment: Kashima's Shinzo Koroki (right) celebrates his 67th-minute goal with teammate Marquinhos on Saturday. KYODO PHOTO

"As a team we have been gradually moving in the right direction, so this really is a pity," he said. "We just aren't the finished article yet. The players have kept their focus amid a busy schedule, but now we will have to turn our attentions toward the Emperor's Cup."

Urawa's determination to spoil Kashima's party was clear as Tatsuya Tanaka and Marcus Tulio Tanaka both carved out chances in the first five minutes, but Koji Nakata put the ball in the net for Antlers soon after only to be ruled out for offside.

Takuya Nozawa also went close as Kashima found space on the counterattack, first drawing a save from Yamagishi before thumping the post with a close-range header minutes before halftime.

Juninho, Chong Tese and Kengo Nakamura had already combined to give Frontale a 3-0 lead by that time, however, and the pressure was squarely on Kashima as the teams returned after the break.

"For the last three years we have had to win our last game to win the title, and each time I have forbidden anyone from telling us the scores in the other matches," Oliveira said. "At halftime I had no interest in what Frontale were doing. I was only thinking about what to do in this game."

Mitsuo Ogasawara failed to capitalize on a Nozawa pass as he poked wide on the hour mark, but Koroki made no mistake when Uchida's cross bounced in front of him, finding the target to spark wild celebrations on the Kashima bench.

But the deal had not been sealed just yet. Urawa substitutes Robson Ponte, Naohiro Takahara and Sergio Escudero brought fresh problems, and Takahara caused a collective intake of breath went he went down in the box in the 79th minute.

No penalty was given, but Antlers goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata still had to play his part as he kept out a Tulio header three minutes later with Reds continuing to throw everyone forward.

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Kashima Antlers players celebrate their third consecutive J. League championship, which they wrapped up by beating Urawa Reds 1-0 on the final day of the season. KYODO PHOTO

Kashima's championship caliber ultimately shone through, however, and Oliveira paid tribute to his players' temperament after holding firm until the final whistle.

"We were playing against the most talented team in Japan today, and I told the players before the match that the key was to keep their composure," he said. "It's not easy to beat Reds, but any game lasts 90 minutes. "There was no need to get an early goal and no need to lose our heads at the beginning or the end.

"I knew that the game would probably start and finish the way it did with Reds putting us under a lot of pressure, but I knew that if we defended well we would have our chances in the middle."

Jubilo Iwata's Ryoichi Maeda finished the season as top scorer with 20 goals, becoming the first Japanese player to win the award since Takahara in 2002.

With nothing left to play for among the other first-division clubs, attention turned instead to J2 and the race for the third and final promotion spot. Shonan Bellmare beat Mito Hollyhock 3-2 to edge out Ventforet Kofu and to clinch a return to the top flight after an absence of 10 years.

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