Antlers keep Japanese interest high

THEY WERE little more than the token host nation representative to keep local interest alive, but Kashima Antlers are now one game away from the FIFA Club World Cup final.

The Antlers won their second game in the 2016 competition when they beat Mamelodi Sundowns in the quarter-final game in Osaka. This follows their previous win against Auckland in the preliminary round.

It has been a busy week for the Antlers as they won the J-League only last weekend, beating Urawa Reds in the final.

They showed great resilience against a Mamelodi side that dominated the first period and looked set to claim a semi-final place. But for Antlers’ goalkeeper, Hitoshi Sogahata, who pulled off a string of fine saves, the Japanese would have been beaten by half-time. But like so many African sides in the FIFA Club World Cup, they fell at their first hurdle. The Antlers scored twice in the second half through Yasushi Endo and Mu Kanazaki.

Strangely, Mamelodi coach Pitso Mosimani claimed that Kashima were over-physical, not something usually associated with Japanese teams. “We were a little out-muscled,” he said. “It was a game of two halves…we showed a little bit of inexperience, particularly in the final third.”

The Antlers also demonstrated their character in lifting the J-League title. They came top of the first stage, losing just two of their 17 games, but slipped to 11th in the second phase. Urawa ended top overall and qualified for the play-off, but Kashima had to play Kawasaki Frontale to see who would meet Urawa. They won 1-0.

The first leg of the play-off saw Urawa pull off a 1-0 win in Kashima thanks to a second-half penalty. In the second leg, played before 60,000 people in Saitama, Kashima fell behind to an early goal, but came back to win 2-1, with Mu Kanazaki netting both goals.

Kashima’s coach, Masatada Ishii, the first Japanese to lead the Antlers to the J-League, was overjoyed at his team’s success. “We started this with the duty to win a title and now we’ve achieved that I am truly really happy,” he told the Japanese media.

The J-League play-off format has been universally unpopular and is being abandoned. When they decided to  implement a two-stage season, the media warned it was “courting disaster” and it has done little for the sport’s popularity in Japan. Next season, the J-League will be a 34-game single stage affair, with the top team being declared champions.

As for the FIFA Club World Cup, Kashima become the fifth Japanese side to reach the semi-finals – Urawa 2007, Gamba Osaka 2008, Kashiwa 2011 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2015 have all been there before.

They will face Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, the Libertadores Cup winners, and the club that was due to meet Brazil’s Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericano. Of course, Chapecoense’s team was wiped out by a terrible plane crash.

How the Chapecoense affair affects the Colombians remains to be seen, but it is possible they will have to lift themselves in the aftermath of tragedy. But on arriving in Japan on December 10, their coach, Ronaldo Rueda said: “The best tribute [to Chapecoense] we can give is to play a great tournament and reach the final.”

World Cup 2014: Tremors to hit Brazil?

Upset in 1950....nervous in 2014
Upset in 1950….nervous in 2014

The nerves are starting to show in Brazil. Scolari looks like he’s getting hot under the collar, Neymar’s fitness becomes national news and there’s the omnipresent threat of violence if things go horribly wrong for Pentacampeões against Colombia.

Having predicted that Chile would beat Brazil in the last 16 – actually, they very nearly did – we are going to have another bash at making bold statements. Colombia will beat Brazil tonight in Fortaleza.

Why? Because Colombia have looked very good throughout the competition, they have some sparkling talent, Brazil are nervous and, in many quarters, uninspiring. It will be tight, but James Rodriguez and his team-mates may inflict upon the host nation the sort of shock that has still been sending small tremors into the Brazilian psyche since 1950.

Brazil have not been as sterile as some of their teams, but they are, to quote Roger Daltrey, a “One Man Band” in many ways. If Neymar doesn’t play, Brazil have big problems.

You cannot deny that the atmosphere around Brazil’s games so far has been tremendous – the bizarre national anthem routine, the over-emotional players (get a grip, guys…never saw Gerson behave like this, did we?) and the near-evangelical post-match celebrations. It all points to Brazil weeping and hugging their way through to Rio for the final on July 13.

However, they are not the best team in the tournament. I would place Colombia, Argentina, France and the Netherlands ahead of them at the moment. And Rodriguez is poised to the [unlikely] star of the show. It will be tight and the Brazilian crowd may have to drag their team through what will be their biggest test so far – possibly bigger than Chile, who are probably still sitting at that bar in Santiago and saying, “We should have been a contender”.

Meanwhile, the quarter-finals kick off in the Marcana in an all-Europe tie: France v Germany. The French continue to delight but they may not have enough to beat a typical German side that knows how to play these tournaments. While we have been entertained by France, Germany have not played to the best of their ability, but still successfully negotiated each hurdle.

France have a good record against their neighbours, with 11 wins from 25 meetings to Germany’s eight. Of these 25, three have been competitive fixtures, and all in the World Cup. The most recent were the two semi-final meetings in 1982 and 1986. We won’t need too much reminding of the dreadful and cynical behaviour in 1982 of German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher when he jumped into Patrick Battiston and almost mortally injured the unfortunate Frenchman.

This game could be somewhat attritional, with an unsatisafactory ending – in other words, the Germans will win on penalties. You have been warned!

The competition itself continues to win plaudits, although the knock-out stage has been less liberal. The goals-per-game average is 2.75, which is the highest since 1970 (2.97). Crowds are averaging 51,989. Yellow cards are averaging 2.73 per game, the lowest since 1986 and there have been 10 red cards, averraging 0.18 per game, the lowest since 1982. It’s all pretty “feel good” at the moment….