3 - 0 Atletico Nacional
Hopefully, the petty publications who spent the past month complaining about how Kashima Antlers somehow "didn't deserve" to be J.League champions this season will now see fit to write full formal apologies. No, I guess that may be a bit too much to hope for, but at least now the people who begrudged them their J.League crown will admit that the Golden Herd of Ibaraki -- even if it doesn't always perform to full potential in the weekly grind of the J.League season -- has the qualities that make a true champion. In their clash against Atletico Nacional on Wednesday evening, in the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup, Antlers displayed those qualities from start to finish, and despite Atletico's enormous edge in time of possession, the final result was not that inappropriate. Throughout their reign as Japan's most decorated team, Antlers have always shown that they know how to stick to a game plan, execute it effectively, and not let anything ruffle their poise or distract them from the plan. Now, they will move on to the biggest event in team history -- a head-to-head clash with Real Madrid, for the title of World Club Champions!
As ironic as it may have been, there is something very fitting about the way this contest unfolded. Antlers have a long and pothole-studded history of victimization at the hands of referees, dating all the way back to the J.League's inaugural season, when a highly dubious PK call in the playoff against Tokyo Verdy cost Kashima their chance to be the first league champion. Zico's reaction to the call -- walking over and spitting on the ball before Verdy could take the spot kick -- earned the Kashima legend a yellow card, but also a permanent place in the hearts of Kashima fans. Thus, when the referee suddenly called a "time-out" in the 33rd minute of the first half, and walked over to the touchline to make the first-ever video replay review in FIFA history, nobody in the Kashima home stands could imagine the stroke of good fortune that was about to fall in their laps.
The video-assisted call is bound to be discussed and debated for weeks, but there is one thing nobody is likely to claim: Even the most patriotic Atletico supporter will be forced to admit that Orlando Berrio deliberately tripped Daigo Nishi as the Kashima right back tried to chase a cross from Gaku Shibasaki, fouling him inside the penalty area and thus conceding a penalty kick. Indeed, the scenes of Berrio trying to plead his case with the referee were rather amusing. The Atletico player repeatedly tried to use body language to indicate that he had just backed into Nishi, while the referee kept drawing an imaginary screen with his fingers as if to say: "Dude . . . I just saw what you did, with my own eyes".
Prior to this key play, the Antlers had given a tenacious performance, and even created some legitimate scoring chances, but they were by far the second-best team on the pitch up to that point. The South American players used a combination of ball skills and sheer physical strength to dominate possession. But despite their advantage in the run of play, they were unable to seriously trouble the Antlers defense. It wasn't until after Shoma Doi put Kashima in front with the spot kick that Atletico created their most dangerous opportunities of the contest. On three or four occasions, excellent saves by keeper Hitoshi Sogahata were needed to keep the visitors scoreless, and Gen Shoji had to head a shot off the line to preserve the lead until half time.
However, once the second half began, Kashima (and other domestic) fans could begin to see a serious prospect of pulling off the upset. The back line duo of Shoji and Naomichi Ueda stood firm despite repeated efforts by the South Americans to bull their way into shooting position, and the entire team pursued the ball tirelessly to ensure that the only shots Atletico had were from distance As we have noted in reports on both of Kashima's previous victories at this Club Championship tournament, the Antlers are experts at protecting a lead, and seem to thrive, rather than crumble, under pressure. As the second half wore on, they seemed to become even more comfortable playing off the back foot, while the Atletico players started to panic. Seeing a good opportunity to capitalize on the counterattack, Kashima manager Ishii brought on Mu Kanazaki, and then Ryota Nagaki, both of whom are good at holding the ball under pressure and linking up for quick counterattacks. As the contest moved into the final ten minutes, this tactic paid off. Kanazaki broke out with Doi on a counterattack down the left flank, and with a sudden burst of speed, he got behind the last line of Atletico's defense. As the South Americans charged back towards their goal mouth, nobody spotted Yasushi Endo as he slanted in from the opposite sideline. Kanazaki's low, hard cross bounded in front of the keeper just as Endo arrived, and the diminutive midfielder had the presence of mind to snap up the loose ball and backheel it nonchalantly into the net.
With the contest all but decided, Ishii brought on young Yuma Suzuki, who just happens to be the first player ever to score a goal at Osaka's Suita Stadium (earlier this year). Once again, Kanazaki's strength and speed allowed the (currently out-of-favour) national team striker to burst past his man and charge into the corner -- this time on the right. He turned inside and as the keeper positioned himself for a shot, Kanazaki fired a bounding pass for the far post, where Suzuki was galloping in unmarked. Suzuki poked the ball into an empty net, and the Antlers section of the crowd went wild in celebration. For the first time ever, a J.League team will be taking part in the Club World Cup FINAL! JSoccer will have reports on both the semi-final between Real Madrid and Club America, tomorrow evening, and the final match this weekend.