Preview: Kashima Antlers v Western Sydney Wanderers FC

Kashima Antlers may be the most successful team in Japanese history with seven titles to its name but is still without an Asian crown as it prepares to host defending champion Western Sydney Wanderers on Wednesday. It does have however, one of the brightest young talents on the continent in Gaku Shibasaki.

The 2012 J-League Rookie of the Year is already a star. The Japan national team had a disappointing 2015 AFC Asian Cup, exiting at the quarterfinal stage and there was a feeling among many fans that had the classy midfielder been given more playing time then it may have ended differently.

As it was, Shibasaki scored against UAE in the last eight tie and looked very dangerous whenever he was on the pitch. By the time 2018 rolls around, the 22 year-old could be the mainstay of the Samurai Blue as well as playing for a seriously big European club. 

This could be his last season in Japan and helping Kashima to Asian success would be a fine parting gift.

“He’s always very aware of what is going on around him and has the skills to change a game from midfield,” said Javier Aguirre, the Japan national team coach fired earlier this month. “His dribbling and passing make him a real asset.”

Not only that, he has started every Kashima league game for the past two seasons, perhaps a result of his regime, as outlined by club legend Mitsuo Ogasawara. “His daily schedule is like an old man’s. He always goes to bed early, gets up early, and he’s always at training early to get prepared. He can go as far as he wants in the game.”

Kashima has never progressed past the last eight in the AFC Champi0ns League and is perhaps the most underachieving club in Asia when comparing domestic success in a major league and the lack of continental glory.

At one time Kashima was relatively well-known internationally for an Asian team due to its winning habit in Japan and the signing of the legendary Zico in the early nineties.

The maestro helped provide the club with some of its Brazilian influence that can still be felt today. Almost all of the club’s coaches have been from the South American country. 

Now, Zico’s former national team-mate Toninho Cerezo is at the helm. He played for the Selecao over 50 times in the seventies and eighties and returned to Kashima in 2013 for a second spell at the club after delivering two titles in 2000 and 2001.

He delivered third place in 2014 and it could have been first had the Antlers defeated Sagan Tosu in the final game. 

There haven’t been major signings in the close season and the Kashima of 2015 is looking a lot like the Kashima of 2014 but a young team is a year older, and perhaps a year better. And given the fact that the J-League season has not yet kicked off, familiarity may help prevent rustiness.

On the field too, there’s a strong Brazilian contingent. Had Davi not picked up a knee injury in October that ended his season, depriving his team of goals and creativity. it may have ended with the title -he is not going to be back for this game. Caio, still just 20, had a very encouraging first season. 

If he can progress then it could be a memorable season indeed and there is the dangerous and improving Shuhei Akasaki in attack. At the back the versatile Hwang Seok-ho comes from Sanfrecce Hiroshima to shore up the defence that was a relative weak point in 2014.

Yasushi Endo in midfield was there for the hat-trick of titles from 2007 to 2009 and the rather less experienced Shoma Doi looks very promising indeed. But Shibasaki could, should, be the standout. If he can help Asia’s great underachievers finally get the glory then he can leave for Europe as a hero.

As for the Wanderers, they arrived in Japan on Sunday night after a disappointing loss to Adelaide the previous day. 

Their club form has been so dire that they remain on the bottom of the A-League ladder. You get the feeling an Asian campaign might be a welcome distraction for Tony Popovic’s men, who’ll be without important striker Brendon Santalab due to injury. 

But the reigning Asian coach of the year knows he has a chance to start afresh with this ACL campaign, and that’ll be something he’ll stress to the group.  

And with the impressive Ante Covic in goal and two of the Socceroos’ Asian Cup winning side, Tomi Juric and Matt Spiranovic, you wouldn’t expect the red and black to be anything but difficult to beat on the road. 

It all starts on Wednesday night at the Kashima Soccer Stadium.