Newcastle Jets coach Ernie Merrick says his side were not at their best, but the class of Kashima Antlers was undeniable in the Jets' 4-1 Asian Champions League qualifying loss in Japan.
The defending ACL champions, who are yet to start their J-League campaign, were fast and clinical at Kashima Soccer Stadium on Tuesday to easily book their spot in Group E.
Brazilian Serginho scored a second-half brace, including a penalty, to end any hopes of a Jets' comeback.
Newcastle were buoyed by a surprise 3-1 win over Melbourne City last Friday night, achieved with an almost completely new line-up since their 3-1 extra-time ACL victory over Indonesian club Persija Jakarta three nights earlier.
The Jets absorbed early pressure in Japan before Sho Ito scored in the 18th minute for the hosts.
Leo Silva's strike through traffic was cleverly deflected by Serginho, and Jets keeper Glen Moss dived to knock it onto the post, only for the ball to sit on the goal line for Ito to finish.
Newcastle equalised on 23 minutes when Ronny Vargas' shot took a huge deflection off a Kashima defender.
Antlers regained the lead through Shuto Yamamoto in the 32nd minute when he capitalised on hesitation from Johnny Koutroumbis to power in a far-post header off a floating cross from Koki Anzai.
Moss was outstanding for Newcastle, making several great saves, but the supreme skills of Kashima and the Jets' busy schedule and journey to Japan, which started with a 5am bus trip on Saturday and included a stopover in Seoul, told late.
"I thought Kashima Antlers were a step ahead of us tonight," Merrick said.
"They played really good football. They were quick, they were technical and they were very direct.
"We weren't at our best. It was our third game in seven days, and a fairly long trip, but Kashima were just a far superior team."
Serginho made it 3-1 from the penalty spot in the 66th minute after Jets captain Nigel Boogaard fouled Silva.
He scored again in the first minute of injury time, finishing off a Kazuma Yamaguchi run and cross.
"I thought we were hanging in there until the penalty because at 2-1 you're always in with a chance of getting a draw and going to extra time, but the penalty killed us off," Merrick said.
"I think Kashima has a good chance of winning the league if they play like that.
"It was a good experience for us."
Newcastle will now have to recover for a crucial A-League clash with fourth-placed Adelaide (30 points) at home on Sunday from 5pm.
They sit seventh on 22 points, six points outside the top six, with eight games to go.