Sunday’s match between J.League champions Kashima Antlers and CAF Champions League winners Mamelodi Sundowns holds all the promise of being a stylish and lightning-fast game of football. While Kashima bring with them a euphoric support base that will ensure songs are sung and flags waved throughout the match, Sundowns carry the hopes of the entire Rainbow Nation.
Mamelodi Sundowns-Kashima Antlers, Suita City Football Stadium, Sunday 11 December, 19:30 (local time)
A dismal year for South African rugby coupled with the national football team Bafana Bafana’s inability to qualify for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations has left South African sports fans with little to cheer about in 2016. Sundowns’ historic victory in the 2016 CAF Champions League – only the second time a South African team has ever won the competition – has provided a much needed boost to national pride and South Africans have been quick to lay down club allegiances and get fully behind the Pretoria-based club. But can the African champions overcome the jet-lag, high-expectations and a well-prepared home team?
“The busy schedule and euphoric feeling of winning the J.League championship maybe played a part in our slow start,” said player of the match Ryota Nagaki shortly after Kashima’s 2-1 win against Auckland City. The J.League title, won just five days before the Club World Cup opener against the Oceania champions, was Kashima’s first domestic title in seven years. Fatigue and distraction were evident throughout much of their game against Auckland, but smart substitutions in the second half helped Kashima kick into gear and dominate the remainder of the match. Kanazaki – fresh after scoring the brace that sunk Urawa Reds in the second leg of the J.League final – proved decisive once again, scoring the match winner.
The South Africans, led by an agile and fast frontline, will be better suited to match the Japanese champions for speed and intensity than Auckland were. In fact, a fast and open game may be just what Sundowns are after, a fact that Antlers coach Masatada Ishii is well aware of.