Kashima Antlers kick off their bid for AFC Champions League glory against 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai in a Group E clash at Kashima Stadium on Tuesday.
While the J1 League side failed to reach the knock-out stage last time round, they did nearly spring a huge upset in last year’s FIFA Club World Cup, running Spanish giants Real Madrid close in the final.
Kashima striker Yuma Suzuki admits the lure of returning to the Club World Cup and taking on Europe’s best is an added motivation for success in the AFC Champions League.
“It was a dream to be able to play against the world’s best players (at the Club World Cup) and I want to play on that stage again,” said Suzuki. “We want to do whatever we can to become the ACL champions so we can return to the Club World Cup.”
The Antlers have never progressed beyond the quarter-final stages in six previous attempts, but Manager Masatada Ishii is confident they can do better.
While the side has lost star midfielder Gaku Shibasaki in the off-season, they still boast the likes of last year’s top scorer Mu Kanazaki, world class defender Gen Shoji and club legend Mitsuo Ogasawara in their line-up.
Midfielder Leo Silva also joined from Albirex Niigata, while Vissel Kobe’s Pedro Junior and former Brazil international midfielder Leandro have also been added to the squad.
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The team is also riding high after defeating Urawa Reds 3-2 in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup over the weekend.
“We will go for the ACL title to try and earn ourselves a return to the Club World Cup. That is the wish of the club, the staff and all the players,” manager Ishii said.
“The ACL is one of the titles we have never won so that is our aim. It’s not that we are giving it priority over the J-League. The J-League is obviously a title that we want to defend and the same goes for the Emperor’s Cup.
“We want to win the League Cup and sweep all the domestic trophies, plus the ACL. That is why I have been allowed to bolster the team with the signings that I have made. There are big expectations of us and we have to get the job done on the pitch.”
Ulsan will provide them with a stern test first up. The South Korean side only scraped into the competition via a penalty shootout against Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC, but they certainly can not be underestimated, having won the competition in 2012.
They have been bolstered by the arrival of new midfield signing Mislav Orsic, formerly of Jeonnam Dragons and Chanchun Yatai.
They also brought in forward Lee Jong-ho, right back Kim Chang-soo and center back Choi Kyu-baek from Jeonbuk in a five-player trade deal.