Misao: We are the defending champions and we will reach the knockout stage
Kashima: Midfielder Kento Misao insists that AFC Champions League holders Kashima Antlers are fully focused on continuing their title defence into the last 16 ahead of Wednesday's crucial clash with China PR's Shandong Luneng.
Three years ago, Guangzhou Evergrande were eliminated from the Group Stage of the 2016 AFC Champions League in stunning circumstance as the defending champions crashed out.
Kashima Antlers, winners of the 2018 title, are determined to avoid a similar fate.
They will need to ensure they get at least a point at home to Group E winners Shandong to avoid being overtaken by Gyeongnam FC or Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), who play in the other Wednesday tie.
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And young Kashima star Misao asserts that the Ibaraki side are fully focused on making it to the Round of 16.
"Although we were not able to take the first place in the group, our goal is clear: win the next game and head to the AFC Champions League knock-out stage." he said.
"We are the defending champions and will focus on winning this game, so we can continue our quest to get the AFC Champions League title again."
Kashima's inconsistent form in the Continent of late - defeats at home to Gyeongnam and away to JDT - may have come as some surprise after strong opening half to Group E, but Misao remains confident that a youthful squad will oversee the growing pains.
"The average age of our team is much lower compared now with last year," he said.
"Some experienced players played a important role last year, but now we have many young players that have a really high potential and are gaining in experience and confidence."
"Everyone including me believes that we can overcome what we were last year.
"It doesn’t matter about players who left the club to move abroad.
"Everything depends on us and I believe we can achieve our goal. We want to make our new history with the current squad."
In Kashima's favour will be the home ground advantage, with coach Go Oiwa's side hosting their visitors from Jinan. Not only crowd support but the logistic benefits could all be key factors, says Misao.
"It is really tough when we have to travel long distances for an away game in the AFC Champions League just after a J.League match, but we don’t need to do so this time. I’m sure that is an advantage for us, along with the great support from our fans in Kashima Stadium.
"Shandong has some great great players, but we scored five goals in our last domestic match and we will look to produce a similar performance. We are fully focused on this AFC Champions League match."
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