Can Kashima Antlers break Japan’s ACL drought in 2017?

After completing the Japanese double and almost claiming the Club World Cup, Kashima Antlers look well equipped to go all the way in this year’s AFC Champions League.

It’s always a slightly odd way to end the 2016 season on the first day of the following year but that’s what tradition dictates in Japan with the curtain falling on an 11 month season as Kashima Antlers continued their fairytale recent run of results to defeat Kawasaki Frontale in the final of the Emperor’s Cup.

In doing so they – along with Kawasaki – confirmed their place in this year’s Asian Champions League where they should rightly enter as one of the teams to beat in the eastern half of the draw – if not to go all the way.

There’s a strange situation emerging at the top of Asian football right now where, by most metrics, Japan remains the ‘leading’ nation given that they have a competition that produces far and away more top flight ‘exports’ than any other, along with having an exceptionally high technical level on the field and consistently strong crowds, media coverage and marketing off it.

Yet Korea still produces more clubs that do well in the ACL, while China has attracted global headlines with the capture of a dizzying array of star talent and they too should be expected to be highly competitive in continental competition.

In recent seasons, that’s often left Japanese clubs battling to reach the knockout stages and indeed only twice over the past seven years has a side from the J.League even reached the semis. The last Japanese champion was Gamba Osaka way back in 2008.

That same club and a very strong looking Urawa Red Diamonds side join Kawasaki and Kashima as Japan’s entrants this season and this quartet is arguably the strongest the nation has sent to the continental showpiece in many years, so it may just be the year that things turn again for the elite Japanese clubs.

Naturally, the most focus will be on a Kashima side that has had a Lazarus-like turnaround to win the J.League, before pushing the might of Real Madrid all the way to extra time in the final of the recent FIFA Club World Cup. They capped off a remarkable season with the Emperor’s Cup triumph on New Year’s Day – all within the space of three weeks.

After winning the first stage of the J.League in the middle of the year, things quite literally fell apart for the club over the second stage where they slumped to finish 11th, having won just six of 17 matches.

They entered the ‘Championship’ playoffs – under the unusual system employed – needing to win at Kawasaki inside 90 minutes, which they did, and then needing to defeat Urawa in the final where only away goals would help if the scores were tied across the two legs – and they duly did that too.

Having won the league title on away goals despite finishing a whopping 15 points adrift of Urawa (and third overall) in the ‘annual standings’ they then entered the Club World Cup as firm outsiders, only to roll firstly past Auckland City, then Mamelodi Sundowns and Atletico Nacional to march all the way to the final.

The first AFC side to make the Club World Cup final.

Once there they took a second half lead against Real Madrid and if not for a controversial refereeing decision late in the match could well have pushed the European champions all the way to penalties in a remarkable run of results that saw an AFC nation reach the final for the first time.

They backed all that up with a spell of three wins in a week to sow up the Emperor’s Cup title for a record fifth time and are riding a mighty high wave of confidence that should continue into the ACL when matches commence in barely seven weeks time.

Already they’ve moved to bolster their squad with two headline catching acquisitions from domestic rivals in the shape of electric Brazilian forward Pedro Junior from Kobe and the superb tempo-setting midfielder Leo Silva from Niigata, as well as Japanese Under-23 star Takashi Kanamori from relegated Fukuoka.

All this after their newish manager, Masatada Ishii, was hospitalised with stress midway through the season after a public bust-up with star forward Mu Kanazaki after he was substituted late in a league match. The whole transformation of the club has been nothing short of astonishing.

Slotted into Group E of the ACL alongside Thai outfit Muangthong and likely playoff winners Jeju and Shanghai Shenhua (with Carlos Tevez in tow), progression through to the knockout stages seems a fairly straightforward proposition for a team which balances youth (led by Japan international centre-backs Gen Shoji and Naomichi Ueda and midfielder Gaku Shibasaki) and experience (with the likes of the steadying captain Mitsuo Ogasawara and the veteran keeper Hitoshi Sogahata) very well.

Long known as the ‘Brazilian’ Japanese club, and the former home of Zico (whose banner fans still hang during every match), 2017 may well represent the year where a club whose commitment to the continental cause has often been questioned finally makes the breakthrough into being a true Asian heavyweight.

Scott McIntyre