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Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009
J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK
Title win cements Antlers' spot in J. League history
Having won an unprecedented third straight championship at the weekend, the current Kashima Antlers side has earned the right to call itself the best the J. League has ever seen.
Oswaldo Oliveira's men hardly looked like vintage champions when they lost five consecutive games at the end of the summer, but the way Antlers started and ended the season was a more telling indication of their class.
The opening game against Urawa Reds was a case in point. Facing a team intent on attacking straight from the first whistle, Kashima needed all its experience, intelligence and concentration to soak up the pressure before launching two clinical counterattacks to go 2-0 ahead.
The match ended not with Reds laying siege to the home side's goal but with Antlers thoroughly in control. It is true that this was an Urawa side still coming together under a new manager, but then Kashima had already done exactly the same to Gamba Osaka in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup the week before.
That ability to dictate the flow of the game was the hallmark of Antlers' season. When Gamba visited on the penultimate weekend in a matchup of first against third, Antlers blew them away. When Antlers needed to win at a seething Saitama Stadium last weekend, they did so with consummate professionalism and little fuss.
It was no coincidence that Kashima's sticky patch came when midfielder Masashi Motoyama was recovering from injury, but otherwise the squad's strength in depth was such that personnel changes did little to disrupt the balance.
Striker Yuya Osako and left back Park Joo Ho slotted seamlessly into the lineup at the start of the season, but were not missed when Shinzo Koroki and Toru Araiba returned to take their places. When defensive midfielder Takeshi Aoki's performances began to drop off, Koji Nakata replaced him with typically understated authority.
Kashima's key men are not getting any younger, but there is no reason why the team should not continue to dominate. Youngsters like Osako, Park and Masahiko Inoha have all benefited from being gradually phased in, and Oliveira no doubt has his eye on further signings over the winter.
This Antlers team may be the best ever, but it could get even better.
The eternal bridesmaids of the J. League are still waiting for their first major title after finishing as runnerup for a second straight year and going close in the Asian Champions League and Nabisco Cup.
Frontale gave some breathtaking performances over the course of the season, and critics will point to the shock 1-0 loss to Oita Trinita in late November as evidence of their inability to handle the pressure.
But Kawasaki's slow start to the season has long been its real Achilles heel. While Antlers took 12 points from their first five games, Frontale managed only five.
Takashi Sekizuka's men will challenge again next year, but unless they can hit the ground running it could be the same old story.
"It would be tragic if Ogasawara is watching the World Cup on TV next year," he said after his side had clinched the title on Saturday. "We must not let that happen. There are lots of good players on the national team, but none are as good as him."
Okada, however, appears to have plenty of options. This year's all-star team of the season contained only Japanese players for the first time in J. League history.
Nagoya Grampus' Dragan Stojkovic stirred worldwide interest thanks to Youtube footage of his goal against Yokohama F. Marinos on Oct. 17. Stojkovic, by the way, is Nagoya's manager.
At a break in play, Marinos goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto punted the ball aimlessly down the field. Racing off his bench, Stojkovic — wearing a suit and shoes — met it on the volley with the outside of his foot, sending the ball flying half the length of the pitch, over the bewildered Enomoto and into the net without a single bounce.
Once a genius, always a genius.