Ibaraki: Kashima Antlers sealed their place in the Round of 16 on Wednesday night, but for close to an hour at Kashima Soccer Stadium it had looked like they were heading for elimination before they eventually defeated Group E winners Shandong Luneng.
The 2018 AFC Champions League winners made hard work of it at time, but thanks to a stunning two-goal cameo off the bench from substitute striker Sho Ito - who also scored a brace against Shandong in the first meeting - the J.League club are once more in the Round of 16 of the Continent's most prestigious club tournament.
Serginho struggles to recapture 2018 form
A big reason for Kashima's run to the 2018 title was due to the incredible form of Brazilian attacking midfielder Serginho.
After arriving from Santos FC in the summer the number 18 went on a torrid run of form, scoring in five of the six AFC Champions League games he appeared in as Kashima went on to defeat IR Iran's Persepolis in the final.
This campaign, though, the club's uneven form has been mirrored by the Brazilian's own performances. Just two goals in the Group Stage and none since Matchday Three, Serginho endured another tough night.
After going behind to an early Marouane Fellaini goal, Kashima need to get back on level terms to stay alive in the compeition and in 2018 Sergingho would have been the man to deliver, but the Brazilian found himself unable to get into dangerous areas of the field and registered just a single shot on goal in 90 minutes.
In fact, rather than get more involved, the Brazilian had fewer touches than any of Kashima's starting XI apart from goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae. The drop-off in form for a player who is usually the major weapon in their arsenal, may be a major worry for Kashima going into the last 16.
Pelle's threat neutralised
Unlike Serginho, Shandong's Italian forward has enjoyed a highly successful Group Stage campaign with his six goals helping the Chinese Super League side claim top spot in Group E.
However, having missed Matchday Five through injury, it seems that Pelle may need time to re-adjust to the Continental competition as he endured a difficult match in Kashima.
Normally averaging four shots a game, Pelle had only two efforts on goal (just one of which was on target) against Kashima - his worst stats at the 2019 edition so far - while his numbers in touches (47), duels (19) were also on the lower scale of his returns. Indeed, as the graphic above shows he spent just as much time helping out in his own half as in the attacking third.
Fellaini stepped up a fortnight ago with the winner in Pelle's absence and although the Belgium also found the net again in Ibaraki, Shandong will need their main goalscorer to recover his form with important fixtures on the domestic and Continental front to come.
Super Sub Sho
With the main attacking threats for the teams misfiring, a moment of magic was needed to turn the game on its head. And fortunately for the hosts, it came for them, twice, as Sho Ito's quickfire double flipped the tie around.
The 30-year-old was signed ahead of the 2019 season from Yokohama F. Marinos and has had a mixed experience in his second AFC Champions League campaign so far.
On target in the play-offs against Newcastle Jets, Ito then scored his first Group Stage goals since 2014 with a pair of smart finishes against Shandong in JInan. Since then, though, he has gone goalless until his rescue mission off the bench on Wednesday.
Ito's shooting accuracy and conversion rates from the Group Stage games are the best of any of Kashima's players and with usual goal-threat Serginho struggling, the Ibaraki club may now need to rely more on their number 15 to produce the goods when it matters.
If nothing else, Shandong will be glad to see the back of him.