Nagaki: Kashima need to raise their game after 'unstable' Group Stage performances
Ibaraki: Kashima Antlers midfielder Ryota Nagaki admits that the defending champions will need to improve if they wish to keep their AFC Champions League defence going into the quarter-finals ahead of Tuesday's Round of 16 meeting with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
The holders grip on their Asian crown was close to slipping off completely in the Group Stage of the 2019 edition, but a come-from-behind win over China PR's Shandong Luneng on Matchday Six saw Kashima of Japan extend their stay on the Continental throne until at least the Round of 16.
However, defeating countrymen Sanfrecce and remaining among the final eight will require the Ibaraki club to lift their performances according to Nagaki.
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"Our performance in the Group Stage was unstable, especially at the start of games," confessed the 31-year-old.
"We couldn’t produce good performances in Matchday Four and Matchday Five even though we had a chance to qualify to the knockout stage.
"We are the reigning champions and the current squad should overcome what we were last year."
"Nevertheless, we have confidence that we can bounce back, but we need to improve the performance through 90 minutes to advance to the next round in the knockout stage."
One player who has stepped up when his team has needed him is a newcomer to the side: striker Sho Ito who signed from Yokohama F. Marinos ahead of the 2019 season.
Memorably, Ito came off the bench to net the vital brace against Shandong that secured the Round of 16 place and Nagaki heaped praise on the forward.
SHO ITO BRACE!— FOX Sports LIVE! (@FSAsiaLive) May 22, 2019
Just moments after equalizing for @atlrs_english, the forward scores again to put Kashima ahead against Shandong Luneng!
Gyeongnam FC and @OfficialJohor look set to be heading out...#KASvSDL #GFCvJDT #ACL2019 pic.twitter.com/2qbatk7V6q
"Sho has scored more goals than anyone else in the team so far," he said.
"His positioning, especially in front of the opponent’s goal, is really great. He always tries to get goals, which helps the team have chances to score.
"If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have made the knockout stage this year. His two goals on Matchday Six made us qualify for the Round of 16. He has played a great role for us."
Nagaki, Ito and their teammates have a new challenge on Tuesday: they have never previously faced a fellow Japanese team in Continental competition.
"There are two aspects," said Nagaki. "On one hand, we don’t need to travel long distances compared with going overseas, and we know Sanfrecce well having played many matches against them.
"For example, we know Yoshifumi Kashiwa is the dangerous player in Sanfrecce and his speed plays a key role in their offence."
"On the other hand, it will be a match against another J.League team for the first time for us in our AFC Champions League history. So it could be a difficult test within this different atmosphere and scenario.
"We have had good performance in our home games so far, so it will be important to maintain that form and focus on the first leg.
"We need to just concentrate on winning that home leg first and then look to the return meeting."
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