2018 Final – Ones To Watch: Kashima Antlers
Kuala Lumpur: On Saturday, Japan's Kashima Antlers will look to take a giant step towards becoming just the third team from the J.League to lift the AFC Champions League when they host IR Iran's Persepolis in the first leg of the final.
Ahead of the first of two meetings between the best clubs in the East and West of the continent, the-AFC.com kicks off our build-up to the final with a look at some of the key Kashima players, who could be the ones to watch at Kashima Soccer Stadium on November 3.
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The Korea Republic goalkeeper is no stranger to the AFC Champions League final, having won the title with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in both 2006 and 2016, before making the move to Kashima for the 2017 J.League season.
And with his new club, the distinguished custodian stands on the brink of history, potentially becoming the first player to win three AFC Champions League titles.
A veteran at 34 years of age, the shot-stopper shows no signs of slowing down, making a number of key saves throughout the campaign to help his side.
With this being Kashima’s first taste of a continental final, his experience on this stage will prove invaluable as they seek their first continental title.
Suzuki, 22, made a name for himself with a series of standout performances at the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup, where Kashima finished runners-up after giving Real Madrid a big scare in the final.
Since that time he has developed into one of the Antlers’ most important attacking weapons.
While he has just the two goals in this campaign, that doesn’t tell the full story of his importance to the Kashima side.
Just as important is his work off-the-ball, dragging defenders away and creating space for the likes of Shoma Doi, Yasushi Endo and Serginho pushing on from midfield.
Prior to the AFC Champions League quarter-finals, few on the continent will have heard of the 23-year-old Brazilian who joined Kashima Antlers in the summer.
But come the final on Saturday, there will be no other player who commands such attention. Four goals in four AFC Champions League appearances are testament to the goal-threat the attacking midfielder brings to the table.
It's not just his goals that are key - with his all-round game also complimenting physical forward Suzuki - but the timing of them; with Serginho's strike coming at vital moments for his side.
In particular in the semi-final against Suwon Samsung Bluewings, the South American scored a crucial first leg effort to bring Kashima level having gone two down, before netting what would effectively be the winner in the second leg with just eight minutes remaining.
There should be no surprises if the prolific marksman were to add to his tally at the final stage of the tournament.
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