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Sasaki admits ‘more motivation’ against defending champions Kashima

Hiroshima: As Sanfrecce Hiroshima prepare to face domestic rivals Kashima Antlers in the 2019 AFC Champions League Round of 16, Sho Sasaki has admitted the J.League side have extra motivation being up against the holders.

Sanfrecce will go into the first leg at Kashima Soccer Stadium as the form team in the competition, having won five successive games on the Continent to progress to the last 16 on top of Group F.

Next up is Kashima, whose own qualification to the knockout rounds was only confirmed after a come-from-behind 2-1 victory against Shandong Luneng in their final group game as they have yet to hit top form.

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“We are definitely even more motivated than usual as we’re up against the defending champions,” said defender Sasaki.

“I think playing against a team from the same country, we know about each player in detail, but [because they know about us], this can be both positive and negative.

“Last year, [their striker] Yuma Suzuki won the AFC Champions League’s MVP award and in my opinion he proves his ability even more when he is playing on the biggest stage.”

Sanfrecce began the tournament with a 1-0 defeat at Guangzhou Evergrande, but went on to claim more points than any other team in the group stage by winning all of their remaining group games to finish five points clear at the top.

One of the striking features of their campaign has been how many of the younger squad members have stepped to the fore, with Sasaki’s fellow defender Hayato Araki – who scored the winner against Daegu FC on Matchday Four – among those to have taken his chance with both hands.

Sasaki, meanwhile, is one of the more experienced players within the ranks and it was the 29-year-old’s goal against Guangzhou on Matchday Five that sealed Sanfrecce’s place in the knockout rounds for the first time since 2014.

“We overcame the problems we had in the first game and since then we have been able to get stronger and stronger,” added Sasaki.

“Araki has already played many times in the J.League and, not only does he contribute defensively, he can also score goals.

“Overall we have been really good so far, but we have to keep focusing on every game in front of us. Having the second leg at home [against Kashima] can be an advantage, so we hope we can use it to our benefit.”

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