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Thursday, March 3, 2011
Antlers target swift return to J. League supremacy
It has been four years since Kashima Antlers last headed into a new J. League campaign as contenders rather than champions, but for manager Oswaldo Oliveira the hunger remains the same.
After three seasons on top, Kashima's domination finally ended last year as Nagoya Grampus finished 10 points clear of second-place Gamba Osaka while Oliveira's side limped over the line in fourth.
A New Year's Day win over Shimizu S-Pulse in the Emperor's Cup final salvaged some pride and a place in this year's Asian Champions League, but the pain of losing a league crown that had begun to resemble Kashima's birthright has yet to subside.
As Oliveira looks forward to Sunday's J. League opener at home to Omiya Ardija, however, the emphasis is firmly on making sure the lessons of last season do not go to waste.
"It really was a disappointment but we have to know how to deal with this situation," the Brazilian said. "It's important to keep our goal and to try one more time.
"Last year our defense was the best. We lost the fewest number of games. We drew 12 matches and at least six of them we should have won. I think this was the difference for us, but what we have to do now is try to identify the points and work on them."
Antlers will, however, have little time to feel their way back into action. Defeat to Grampus in last Saturday's Xerox Super Cup kicked off a hectic schedule for Oliveira's men, with the combination of Asian Champions League and J. League commitments promising to test the manager's preparation to the full.
"We spent some good time in Miyazaki," Oliveira said. "Our program was very well done, and we passed three very important phases — physically, tactically and technically. The transition between them was perfect, so the expectation is that we can have a good start.
"We have to be very concentrated and give the players the best conditions to face all these troubles we have in the next few weeks."
Defender Daiki Iwamasa, who missed early preseason training due to his involvement in Japan's Asian Cup-winning campaign, believes the squad now has enough depth and experience to cope.
"This year we've got two teams that are capable of playing at the highest level, so I'm confident we can do it," he said. "I've joined the team late because of the Asian Cup, so I can't say my preparation has been 100 percent, but we've prepared well and we're ready to go.
"In one respect it's good that we can start the season as the challenger. We're at a point where we have to be humble about ourselves, so it's good."
Striker Yuzo Tashiro and midfielder Chikashi Masuda have both returned to the club after a year's loan at Montedio Yamagata, while national team member Takuya Honda, veteran utility man Alex, fullback Daigo Nishi and 190-cm Brazilian striker Carlao have also arrived to bolster the ranks.
But one familiar face is missing. Striker Marquinhos, the 2008 J. League player of the year and scorer of 59 goals in four years at the club, has left to begin a new challenge with Vegalta Sendai.
"Marquinhos didn't have enough motivation to carry on in Kashima," Oliveira said. "I think somewhere else he can get his motivation back and he can do the great job he has done in Kashima. He was perfect sometimes, he scored so many goals and he helped us a lot. Now we are going to see what we can do with our next striker.
"He (Carlao) is adapting. He's a player who has the good characteristics of a forward, and we are going to do our best to give him the best condition to score goals, because that's why he is with us."
But what of Oliveira himself? The 60-year-old has won three league titles and two Emperor's Cups in his four seasons in Japan, yet continues to exude as much enthusiasm and passion as the day he arrived.
"I love to win games," he said. "I love to prepare football teams. I love to see players growing and do their best. That's what keeps me motivated."