Kashima's Oiwa fully focused on making history
Tokyo: Kashima Antlers head coach Go Oiwa has his sights set on making history as the reigning champions close in on their 2019 AFC Champions League quarter-final meeting with two-time winners Guangzhou Evergrande next month.
No team has won consecutive titles since Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad managed the feat in 2004 and 2005, but Oiwa believes his team has the right mindset to be the first side in 14 years to achieve that momentous milestone.
“We are trying to win back-to-back AFC Champions League titles and we are going into the matches with confidence,” Oiwa told the-AFC.com.
“We’ve changed some players, we have some young players who have grown and gone to a higher level. I’m sure we can win the title again. That’s the feeling within the team, that we have the power to do it.”
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For a club that has long been one of the dominant forces of Japanese football, winning a record eight J.League titles and the Emperor’s Cup on five occasions since 1993, it is something of a surprise Kashima took so long to win their maiden continental crown.
But, after bringing their AFC Champions League frustrations to an end last year with victory over Persepolis from Islamic Republic of Iran in the final, Oiwa is now targeting a win that would establish Kashima among the most accomplished clubs in Asian football.
Al Ittihad are the sole team since the start of the AFC Champions League era in 2002 to claim the title in consecutive years while only Guangzhou Evergrande, Urawa Red Diamonds and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have won the trophy more than once since the competition’s inception.
Standing in Kashima’s way of taking another step towards joining that illustrious group of teams is a Guangzhou side that will present not only a serious threat, but who are also looking to make history of their own as they seek to keep alive their quest for a record third AFC Champions League title.
“Any time we have a game against a team from China the away game is always tough,” says Oiwa, whose team travel to Tianhe Stadium on August 28 before hosting the return leg at Kashima Soccer Stadium on September 18.
“We have played against Guangzhou before and this time we have the away game first so we have to make sure we are prepared. It will be difficult for us, but all we can do is concentrate on our preparations."
“In the AFC Champions League the away matches are difficult. That’s what we experienced last year. We lost matches away from home and they were tough. We have more confidence when we play at home and that gives us power.
“Everyone sees us now as the defending champions and all the teams when they play us they have this motivation and it’s harder for us to manage games well. That’s not forgivable in a tournament when you get to the knockout stage and we have to learn from that experience.”
Oiwa knows better than most the challenges his players face in the AFC Champions League. A veteran of more than 500 games during stints with Nagoya Grampus, Jubilo Iwata and Kashima, the former defender won four J.League titles with the Ibaraki club and featured in three AFC Champions League campaigns over 16 seasons as a player.
During that time, Kashima struggled on the international stage only advancing as far as the last eight in 2008. Those difficulties made guiding the team to last year’s title as head coach all the sweeter for the 47-year-old.
“I don't know why we couldn’t win the AFC Champions League for all those years,” he says. “I experienced the AFC Champions League as a player and it was always difficult playing away from home, playing in places like Australia, China, Korea Republic or Iran.
“It’s a tough schedule, especially because of the distances you have to travel. We saw last year there is a lot of pressure and we couldn’t win the J.League title and in the Emperor’s Cup we advanced to the semi-finals.
“The players faced a lot of tough matches and that was an important element in winning the AFC Champions League last year.”
Unity both on and off the pitch was another key factor in Kashima’s title win last year, and Oiwa feels that despite a significant number of injuries affecting his squad this season, the same attitude in the current campaign can yield similar results.
“It was historic for the club to win the title,” he says. “Every year we have tried to win the AFC Champions League title but we couldn’t do it.
“It wasn’t only an achievement for the players but for all the staff at the club. We did it together. That’s what gives us the power to get the title. We all worked together, including the supporters, and that makes me very happy.”
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