When the J. League schedule was announced back in January, the prospect of an away trip to Oita Trinita in the immediate aftermath of a last sixteen, winner-takes-all battle in the AFC Champions League was so unwelcome a prospect that Kashima Antlers fans must have wondered what the league, the JFA, and the fixtures computer had against them. Come the last weekend in June, and a reversal in fortunes so drastic that Pericles Chamusca’s watertight title challengers of 2008 have amassed just four points and conceded more goals already than they did in total last season, it turns out that the calendar could not, in fact, have been kinder. Even after a spirited start from their hosts at the Kyushu Oil Dome, and the concession of a 54th-minute opener to Hiroshi Kiyotake, the champions could afford to be a long way short of their best and still become the twelfth successive league opposition to put Trinita to the sword, maintaining their points lead over Albirex Niigata at seven and extending a run of consecutive league wins to the same figure as they did so.
Nevertheless, the feeling still persists that, in the wake of another huge disappointment in the premier continental competition, the true credentials of Oswaldo de Oliveira’s team are about to be severely tested for the first time this year. Bowing out of the ACL to FC Seoul on penalties may not just have been about the pressure of the occasion – Kashima were unfortunate that the Koreans are currently enjoying their best run of form all year – but after speaking last week about how their cushion at the top of J1 would allow them to focus on that first Asian title as long as they overcame the first hurdle, their failure to do so means an immediate switch of emphasis (and mood) toward protecting what they already have. With back-to-back away fixtures this week against Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale, both of whom having safely made it through to the ACL’s last eight and the latter effectively being Kashima’s closest challengers once games in hand are considered, their advantage over second could be down to as little as two points by the time they return to home ground on 11 July.
Having labelled the Antlers as currently the best team in Asia just seven days ago (a comment I still stand by), it is certainly premature to talk about the downfall of a side with an eight point lead over Kawasaki that – barring penalties – still remains unbeaten in 18 games stretching back to the middle of March. Fans of rival contenders such as Niigata, Urawa Reds, Frontale and Gamba Osaka would be well advised, though, to look back just four years if they fear an unopposed procession towards a championship three-peat for the men from Ibaraki Prefecture. Kashima began the 2005 season with the momentum of a locomotive, winning seven and drawing one of their first eight games, and after a 2-1 home win over Shimizu S-Pulse on 3 July, held a massive 10-point advantage over second-placed Gamba with 32 points from a possible 39. However, the summer then saw the wheels fall off their train just as spectacularly. The players – most of whom are still featuring regularly for the club today – failed to win even two games on the bounce after 8 May, saw their lead eroded in exactly two months to drop to second on 3 September, and managed to draw seven of their final ten matches to eventually limp home in third.
For Oita, meanwhile, a dirty dozen of league defeats could well spell the end for a manager who has brought the club so much success. The hitherto unfamiliar name of Pericles Chamusca was a revelation upon his arrival from Botafogo in September 2005, leading a Trinita side that had gone 13 games without a win to five wins and a draw in his first six, and ultimately to a comfortable 11th-place finish when relegation had seemed inevitable. Eschewing stereotypical flair in favour of solidity, stability, and strategy, the genial Brazilian slowly built his team into a virtually immovable object, winning a first ever trophy in last year’s Nabisco Cup and finishing a best ever fourth in the league with a record of just 33 goals scored and 24 conceded in 34 matches. It is ironic that a run even more disastrous than the one that preceded his arrival looks set to result in his exit, but one hopes that even if the worst should happen, the fans in Kyushu will still remember all that Chamusca has done with real fondness. The highs and lows of the rollercoaster should always trump the tedious inevitability of consistent mediocrity.