November 1, 2018 / 7:15 AM / 16 days ago

Soccer-Buoyant Antlers focused on debut Asian final

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Kashima Antlers will be confident of making their first Asian Champions League final appearance a winning one this weekend after the Japanese side enjoyed a morale-boosting domestic league victory on Wednesday.

Despite making wholesale changes to his starting line-up, Go Oiwa’s Antlers climbed to third in the J.League standings with a 1-0 triumph over Cerezo Osaka, but most eyes were focused on Saturday’s first leg against Iran’s Persepolis at Kashima Soccer Stadium.

“I thought we played really well, and I mean everyone one of us on the pitch,” World Cup defender Gen Shoji, one of only two regular starters to feature on Wednesday, told reporters.

“You could tell we all wanted to win. It was a huge win because we have to win the next game and the performance today will inspire us. This will certainly get us going.”

Despite a dominance of domestic football that has seen the club claim a record eight J.League titles since 1996, Kashima are making their first appearance in the continental final.

They reached the title-decider having only once previously advanced as far as the quarter-finals and face a Persepolis side who, despite being Iran’s most-popular club, are also making their Asian Champions League final debut.

Kashima, though, will be looking to maintain a lengthy period of domination by clubs from the east of the continent in the competition, with no team from the west winning the title since Qatar’s Al Sadd beat Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors in 2011.

That victory is the only one claimed by western clubs since 2006 and Kashima will also be hoping to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Urawa Reds, who won the title last year.

No Iranian team, meanwhile, has been crowned Asian champions since Pas won the Asian Club Championship in 1993 but, with the second leg at the imposing Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Persepolis will be confident of ending the long wait for a title.

Coach Branko Ivankovic led the club to the semi-finals last year and has gone one better this time around, despite Persepolis being unable to sign players in the last two transfer windows due to a FIFA-imposed embargo.

Nigerian striker Godwin Mensha will lead the line for Persepolis alongside Ali Alipour, whose penalty in the first leg of their semi-final win over Al Sadd was crucial to the side’s progress to the final.

Persepolis will also rely heavily on Iran’s World Cup goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and former international defender Jalal Hosseini as they look to make history for both club and country. (Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by John O’Brien)

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