Kashima Antlers proved last season’s smash-and-grab triumph in the J.League was no fluke by winning their second title in a row.

It was a close title race – only three points separated the top six clubs with three games to go – but Antlers held on to top place for the final two months to claim a sixth championship in the league’s 16-year history.

That’s not to say it was all plane sailing for the holders, however, as they endured a seven-game win-less streak in April and May, and then had a second stumble in September when Mitsuo Ogasawara was injured and sidelined for the rest of the season. Antlers, though, had the consistency when it mattered.

Marquinhos, who was the league’s top scorer with 21 goals and landed the player of the year award, was a huge factor in his second season at the club, having arrived via Tokyo Verdy, Yokohama F-Marinos, JEF Chiba and Shimizu S-Pulse. It was the Brazilian’s third championship, having won the title last year and previously with Marinos in 2003.

“Everyone wants to be top scorer and it has taken me eight years to get here,” he said. “Now, I want to do it again.”

Marquinhos was already a fine dribbler with exquisite technique, but he has grown under Antlers coach Oswaldo Oliveira to become a complete striker who contributes selflessly all over the pitch and also scores a hatful of goals. Oliveira, who was named manager of the year, and his coaching staff deserve special credit for transforming Marqinhos into such a player.

Oliveira, who feels Antlers won a fast-improving league, said: “It isn’t easy to win twice in a row and I’ll remember this championship for the rest of my life. But it isn’t only Antlers.

“Trinita were superb in the Nabisco Cup, and Gamba in the Asian Champions League and again in their third-place match in the FIFA Club World Cup. We have seen the progress of Japanese football.”

Antlers had three players named in the J.League’s best XI, with Daiki Iwamasa being picked for the second year in a row, alongside 20-year old Atsuto Uchida and Marquinhos.

The best XI was: Seigo Narazaki (Grampus), Iwamasa (Antlers), Uchida (Antlers), Tulio (Reds), Yuji Nakazawa (Marinos), Satoshi Yamaguchi (Gamba), Kengo Nakamura (Frontale), Yoshizumi Ogawa (Grampus), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba), Marquinhos (Antlers) and Atsushi Yanagisawa (Sanga). Ogawa was also named the season’s best new player.

Kawasaki Frontale were flying at the end of the season. Ten goals and nine points from their last three games took them into second place for the first time on the final day, but it still wasn’t enough to catch Antlers, who eked out steady 1-0 wins in each of their last three outings.

Frontale’s fantastic finish after a rocky start to the season saw them secure a place in the AFC Champions League, along with Antlers and Dragan Stojkovic’s Nagoya Grampus, who came third. Japan’s fourth Champions League spot went to Gamba Osaka, who won the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day.

However, there is one very big name who will be missing from this year’s Champions League tournament – Urawa Reds. A late collapse cost them the title last season and they failed at the finish again this time. Losses in their last three league matches pushed Japan’s biggest club down to seventh spot, their lowest position since 2002.

By Mike Plastow