Those Australian fans who wondered where the beautiful Japanese game had gone during the Asian Cup may get a glimpse when Kashima Antlers take the pitch against Newcastle Jets on Tuesday.
Japan’s national team were functional rather than fluid in the United Arab Emirates but Kashima showed in winning the AFC Champions League last November that they know how to stroke the ball around.
The new J.League season has not yet kicked off but it is a safe bet that the eight-time champions will still be easy on the eye.
On the way to Tokyo and then the two-hour bus ride east for this final play-off, Newcastle will have plenty of time to contemplate the irony of facing a team in this final playoff that is likely to be considerably tougher than any opposition in the group stage.
Lying in wait so far in Group E are Johor Darul Ta-zim - Malaysia’s first-ever representatives in the competition. This club has ambitions going forward but accepts that 2019 is likely to be very much of a learning experience.
South Korea’s Gyeongnam FC are also looking at a new chapter in their history and and may struggle especially with star striker and 2018 K-League top scorer Marcao set to leave. The prospect of either China’s Shandong Luneng or Hanoi FC from Vietnam completing the group is not a scary one.
So for the Jets, getting into the group may well be harder than getting out of it. Should Newcastle triumph at the Kashima Soccer Stadium, it would be one of the best ever Australian results in Asia and surely even the statue of Zico outside the arena, the man who did so much for the team in its early J.League days, would applaud.
Kashima reached the final of the 2016 Club World Cup, losing to Real Madrid but the club’s greatest hour came last November. The eight-time Japanese champs had hitherto done little in Asia but were deserved winners against Persepolis of Iran in the final.
No club has successfully defended the Champions League since Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia in 2005 and Kashima will be confident of getting past the Jets, who needed extra time to get past Persija Jakarta last Tuesday with a 3-1 win.
There is a pleasing mix of youth, experience and talent that runs all through the team. Goalkeeper Kwon Sun-tae has won the Champions League twice with Jeonbuk Motors, in his homeland of South Korea, and now with Kashima. With former Schalke 04 and Japan right-back Atsuto Uchida, one of Asia’s pin-up boys, then you have a pretty good start.
There is some good news for the Australians in that Japan’s central defender Gen Shoji has left for French club Toulouse. His authority and ability to play the ball out from the back will be missed. South Korea’s Jung Seung-hyun is still there however.
Coach Go Oiwa, who took the reins in 2017, likes his 4-4-2 formation. Brazil’s Leo Silva is a crucial cog as a holding midfielder also able to chip in with vital goals. Ryota Nagaki also likes to sit in the middle and uses the ball well. Shoma Doi provides that little bit of something different and loves to use his dribbling skills to get behind the defence.
The front pair are a real handful. Serginho joined midway through last season and it was the Brazilian’s goals that took the team all the way to a first final. Alongside is Yuma Suzuki, a young forward, mobile, skilful and winner of tournament MVP last time around.
Usually attacking, Kashima like to move the ball around quickly with the full-backs looking to go forward as often as possible. They will be on the front foot against the Jets but also counter-attack well.
There are reasons to not be so fearful however. The team may well be rusty in a first competitive game since losing to River Plate in December. There are vulnerabilities at the back especially as the full-backs can be caught upfield and they have lost Gen Shoji in the middle of defence.
All the pressure is on Kashima then but if the Jets can somehow get into the group stage, then they will be confident of getting out of the other side.