AFC Champions League – Can Kashima go all the way again?

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In May 2019, the group stage of the 2019 AFC Champions League will reach its endgame, with the two deciding games being played in May. Japanese teams currently in the group stage have experienced mixed fortunes to date, but for reigning holders Kashima Antlers, the immediate outlook seems very promising once again.

Kashima made a particularly distinguished start to the competition, destroying Newcastle Jets 4-1 in the qualification round, before beating Johor Darul Ta’zim 2-1 in the opening round of the group stage. However, it was in their next two games – involving long-haul trips to China and South Korea – that they truly shone.

Four points out of a possible six is a more than respectable return from two trips in a competition that habitually drains travelling sides of energy, especially with the win (in Gyeongnam) seeing the Antlers come from 2-0 down with twenty minutes remaining, to win 3-2, and do so via two injury-time goals:

Feelings of optimism towards Kashima’s continental progress are further backed by the club’s status as second-favourites (only behind Kawasaki) in long-term J-League betting at William Hill, thanks to the presence of distinct trends in the follwoing vital criteria:

Home comforts

Given the inherent challenges of travelling across the world’s vastest football continent for CL away games, getting some good home form is vital towards progress. They undoubtedly have a solid base of operations, if not a fortress just yet, and across an uninterrupted run of three appearances in the Champions League, the Antlers have lost just once, inconsequentially going down 1-0 to Suwon.

As of the eve of their home group fixture against Gyeongnam, the Antlers have won six Champions League home matches in a row, with exactly half of them yielding a winning scoreline separating Kashima from their opponents by two or more goals. Five of those six home wins in the Champions League have also seen Kashima score first, showing their full ability to prevent the opposition from settling on foreign soil.

This 2-0 win over Persepolis was followed by a 0-0 draw in Iran to hand Kashima their inaugural Champions League trophy.

Major players

While no successful Asian team was ever over-reliant on one man, Serginho has been an absolute revelation for the Antlers. With the Brazilian midfielder netting six times in five Champions League matches on home turf, he is in real contention to finish as the competition’s top scorer.

By a quirk of fate, each of those six home goals he has netted in the competition since August 28 have arrived in the second half, showing that his stamina could be a telling factor in the Antlers’ successful title defence – should it be forthcoming.

Can they do it?

In a word, yes. With win-yielding trends being carried over from the glorious tournament of 2018, which brought the Champions League trophy to Kashima for the very first time, the signs are plentiful that they can keep it there. Healthy measures of defensive discipline with attacking pragmatism are in evidence, and this means of operation is also reflected in the Antlers’ domestic home form, with each of Kashima’s last five J1 home league wins producing a winning margin of just one goal.

They close out the group stage with two home matches in three games, with only the return against Johor – who are now rank outsiders to win the group – representing an away trip before the knockouts.