Friday, December 5, 2008

History repeating, or will Kashima hold their nerve?

History repeating, or will Kashima hold their nerve?
Wind the clock back to December 1, 2007.

Going into the final day of what had been a gripping J. League campaign, Urawa Reds looked certainties to wrap up back-to-back league crowns. The Saitama giants were top-of-the-table as they made the the short trip to Nissan Stadium to take on bottom club Yokohama FC - a team that had been relegated from the top flight in record time.

Meanwhile at Kashima Stadium, Brazilian coach Oswaldo de Oliveira paced furiously up and down the touchline. The man who led Corinthians to the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship in 2000 was as animated as ever as he barked instructions at his Antlers team from the dug-out, but even he must have permitted himself a wry smile as news filtered through from Nissan Stadium.

Yokohama FC midfielder Shingo Nejime had given his side a seventeenth minute lead in front of 46,697 fans - around 40,000 of whom appeared to be Urawa supporters. When word was relayed to the Kashima players, Japan's most successful club side seized their chance. In the twentieth minute the Antlers won a penalty through Marquinhos - fouled by his former Shimizu S-Pulse team-mate Daisuke Ichikawa. Kashima's brooding, enigmatic midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara stepped up to the spot as 31,384 fans inside Kashima Stadium held their breath. He was never going to miss.

History will show that Kashima Antlers beat Shimizu S-Pulse 3-0 on December 1 last year, while Urawa Reds crashed to an inexplicable 1-0 defeat to Yokohama FC. The result allowed Kashima to leapfrog Urawa in the standings on the only day that truly matters, as the Antlers wrapped up an unexpected J. League crown.

The situation in 2008 is eerily familiar. League leaders Kashima Antlers travel to bottom club Consadole Sapporo hoping to wrap up back-to-back titles, although this time it is Nagoya Grampus hoping to profit from any Kashima slip-up. Grampus let slip chance after chance to pull away from the chasing pack as Dragan Stojkovic's side faltered badly in the run home, and the Aichi-based outfit look to have missed their chance to lift a first ever J. League crown.

Complicating matters is the fact that Kawasaki Frontale are still not mathematically out of the race. Kashima go into the final day on 60 points, while Nagoya have 58 and Kawasaki have tallied 57. One thing Frontale can be relied upon for is goals - they've won each of their past two J. League games 4-0, and coincidentally the Kanagawa side are just four goals behind Kashima in terms of goal difference.

A point will be enough for Kashima in front of what should be a packed Sapporo Dome, and even if Kashima lose, Nagoya and Kawasaki must still win to have any chance of picking up their first ever league crowns. After last year's drama, however, it would be a fool to predict the outcome of this title race in what is arguably the most unpredictable domestic league in the world.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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