Kashima Antlers are back on top of the Meiji Yasuda J1 League, leapfrogging Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday after the Ibaraki side played out thrilling 4-4 draw with Sagan Tosu. The question now is whether they can keep their hold on first place.
Their next challenger is F.C.Tokyo, who have every intention of knocking the Antlers from the summit when they welcome them to Ajinomoto Stadium this weekend.
The capital club were one of the hottest teams in the league less than a month ago, going five unbeaten before beginning May with a three-match losing streak. A draw with Kashiwa Reysol ultimately helped them steady the ship before registering an emphatic 3-0 victory away to Shimizu S-Pulse on Wednesday.
Which F.C.Tokyo side will show up this weekend? If it’s the one we saw earlier this week, Kashima may have their hands full.
The Antlers are used to having their hands full at this point, though — a privilege that comes with being in the title race, where every result is massive, every point is crucial, and every match often brings out the best in an opponent.
While Tokyo have been at their best defensively over the past two games, earning clean sheets in both, they haven't faced a player like Kashima's Ayase Ueda. Leading the league with nine goals, Ueda has made the leap from promising young talent to outright superstar and has ignited the Antlers' attack when they've needed him most in 2022.
On the other end of the pitch, Kashima will need to solidify a defense that conceded four times against Sagan Tosu, including in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time. It seems unlikely that another performance fraught with defensive frailty will result in a point, let alone three, and it must improve ahead of this weekend's meeting with FCT.
Can Antlers handle the pressure and keep two planted in first place? We’ll find out in the capital as the Meiji Yasuda J1 League embarks on another big weekend.