Resilient Kashima, misfiring Persepolis: Where the ACL final was decided

AFC Champions League 2019: Ulsan Hyundai 0-3 Urawa Red Diamonds (Ewerton 87′)

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at where the AFC Champions League final between Kashima Antlers and Persepolis was won and lost.

So the wait to taste continental glory for Japan’s most-successful club is finally over as eight-time J1 League champions Kashima Antlers won the AFC Champions League on Sunday.

A 0-0 draw against Iranian giants Persepolis at the intimidating Azadi Stadium was enough to seal a 2-0 aggregate win in the final for Kashima, as they became the third Japanese side to be crowned champions since the ACL era began in 2002.

But just where was the final won and lost? FOX Sports Asia looks back at the five aspects over the 180 minutes that proved most decisive.

1) A game plan that worked to perfection in the first leg

When it comes to matches decided over two legs, there is a constant debate over whether it is better to play at home first.

The common sentiment is that the advantage of a home crowd is always handier in the second leg when a team knows exactly what they have to do in order to get the result.

However, Kashima were hardly bothered by having the host the first leg and delivered coach Go Oiwa’s plan to perfection, by starting last weekend’s time cautiously at first before turning it on after halftime

Goals from Leo Silva (58’) and Serginho (70’) put them in a strong position that was always going to make it difficult for Persepolis to overcome.

2) Persepolis’ misfiring forwards

With eight goals between them up to the semi-finals, Ali Alipour and Godwin Mensha were widely recognised as one of the competition’s most-dangerous strike partnerships.

Yet, when it mattered most, both of them failed to deliver.

Mensha never stopped trying but was largely starved of service and struggled to get into the game in both legs, while Alipour enjoyed more opportunities but they were mostly half-chances.

While Persepolis’ preference for an adventurous dual-striker system will always greeted warmly by fans hoping for attacking football, it is a real problem when neither of time hit the back of the net over 180 minutes

3) Shoji and Jung stand tall when it matters

To say that Mensha and Alipour completely flopped would do a huge disservice to Kashima centre-backs Gen Shoji and Jung Seung-hyun, who deserve plenty of credit for nullifying the threat posed by the Persepolis duo.

While both Alipour and Mensha are strong in the air, any high ball lofted into the Kashima box was almost always gobbled up by Shoji and Jung, and they also had plenty of assistance from goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae.

Having initially hampered by injury following his exploits with Japan at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Shoji is back to his best while Jung is already proving a fine capture in the mid-season transfer window.

4) A lack of options off the bench for Persepolis

One problem that must be addressed by Persepolis if they are to do better next season is a lack of depth at Branko Ivankovic’s disposal.

While the starting XI is a formidable one, the Iranian giants have a real lack of a Plan B if things do not go according to plan and the fact that Ivankovic did not use all three of his substitutes in both legs of the final highlights his lack of options from the bench.

5) An all-rounded team effort is the name of the game for the Antlers

While most title-winning sides usually have a couple of standout players, it is almost impossible to pinpoint Kashima’s star man.

Across both legs, Brazilian midfielder Leo Silva was probably their best player but Shoji would also be a worthy candidate.

Before that, Serginho – another mid-season arrival with five goals in six games – was also important, as well as his strike partner Yuma Suzuki, who contributes so much more to the team than his two goals suggest.