Albirex Niigata become the first team to host us on our return to J1 after pipping us to the post to avoid relegation in 2012 with a final day win over Consadole Sapporo. The Big Swan will be buzzing for the new season having done superbly in 2013 and this game will be nothing but difficult for us. The kick-off time is 13:00 JST.
Albirex won their first game of the 2014 season, defeating our next opponents Vegalta Sendai 2-1 on the road, nicking the winning goal in the 89th minute. We of course deservedly lost 1-0 at home to Urawa Reds and will be looking to bounce back quickly.
The last meetings between the sides came in the 2012 season, both games ending in 1-1 draws. The previous 1-1 draw was the special anniversary match for Banpaku on 15th September, where Keisuke Iwashita conceded a penalty in the final minute to give Albirex a decisive point in the race to avoid the drop after Leandro had opened the scoring for us.
Injuries have been present this week but notably for the two national team players, Endo and Konno. Whilst Konno was more to do with illness and therefore not getting any time for Japan in their 4-2 win over New Zealand, Endo got 45 minutes under his belt and he will be fit to play. Konno should also make the starting eleven.
I would hope that Niwa and Futagawa drop out of the team for Nishino and Omori, but only the latter seems likely but Omori deserves to start after his 45 minute display against the Reds last weekend. People have been calling for Endo to drop backing into holding midfield in place of Uchida so that Lins or the like can come in so that we can control the midfield more, but that would be a vote of no confidence to Uchida who is still finding his feet at this level and will grow as long as he is given time. We need to be patient. Hiroyuki Abe has been training this week and he might make the bench.
There really is no point tinkering with the team too much after just one game.
On another note, Yuto Uchida has been released to join the J3 Japan U-22 National Team for the weekend’s game against FC Ryukyu and he will therefore not be available. I think this is a good chance for him to get some competitive football under his belt and wish him good luck with that.
And a special shout out to Masaaki Higashiguchi who returns to Niigata for the first time following his transfer to us from the club. I stated that he definitely does not want to lose so I am sure he will put in a top performance for us again this week. It will be a tough day for him personally but hopefully a great one professionally.
What we should be looking for this weekend is that the team takes control of the game more and has a greater threat going forward. We never really tested Urawa last weekend and looked hopeless at times, so we should be looking to take the game but the scruff of the neck and make a fast start. Controlling the midfield will be the most vital part and so Konno and Uchida will be the ones to watch this weekend. Thinking positively and go forward with confidence. That is what we need to do.
With over 18,000 people turning up for the opening game of the season, our return to J1 ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat that saw hated rivals walk away with all 3 points, and unfortunately deservedly so on the balance of things.
Our team selection was almost as forecast as Higashiguchi made his debut in goal for us having joined from Albirex Niigata during the winter. Kaji beat Yonekura to right-back spot whilst the unconvincing pairing of Iwashita and Niwa took the centre-back spots. Further forward, Abe surprisingly missed out but with him not playing in the training match on Sunday, we can safely assume he is injured. Akihiro Sato started up front ahead of new signing Lins whilst Endo and Kurata shook off knocks to start in midfield.
The visitors started the brighter and wasted chances through Haraguchi but he sent his efforts well off target. They were targeting our right and Ugajin was getting lots of freedom down that side as the wingers failed to track their men whilst Uchida and Konno were being pulled around the pitch. With us failing to hold onto the ball, Umesaki took aim from 30 yards but his effort, swerving all over the place, went over the bar.
It took us until the 26th minute to create a decent chance, with Fujiharu crossing to Sato in the box but on the stretch he made no contact and Makino put it out of play. Kaji was kept busy at right-back but was doing a stellar job, although Koroki should have made it 1-0 after finding space on the penalty spot but he scuffed his effort wide. Konno went for a 25 yard shot but sent his effort narrowly wide of the post and whilst we started to control some possession, the Urawa defensive wall was just too strong.
So then they made it 1-0 through Makino. The corner was sent in and although Sato won his header freely, it was a poor one which Abe flicked towards goal allowing Makino, who had escaped Niwa’s attentions, to poke home from just a couple of yards. A very poor way to concede a goal, particularly the winning goal and with Kenta Hasegawa stressing it as a point we had worked on a lot.
Half time came with the following thoughts. We had been dominated from start to finish of that half and there was no pressure on the ball and we gave it away easily. Futagawa was by far the worst player – his control was poor and he failed to defend properly. He had to come off.
And so Futagawa was taken off for Omori who almost made an immediate impact, rifling a shot towards goal that Nishikawa did well to save. Iwashita was then booked for dragging back Koroki as the last man and Kurata sent one well wide of the post after a good one-two with Sato. Niwa the thought he had drawn us level in the 65th minute from an Endo free kick but he had strayed marginally offside.
Omori was denied a tap-in due to a great defensive block after Endo headered across the box to him and Urawa countered to find substitute Lee one-on-one with Higashiguchi but Omori came from nowhere to keep the game alive with an incredible block. With time ticking down, Uchida was sacrificed for Lins on his debut whilst Fujiharu picked up a caution for also fouling Koroki.
Urawa were comfortably holding onto the 1-0 win and even though Yonekura came on for Kaji too late, Niwa was pushed over in the penalty area but nothing was given in the 95th minute, leading to Urawa taking the win.
Gamba Man of the Match
Kaji and Omori had very good games but I think that Masaaki Higashiguchi just shaded it. He was not tested so much but even with Urawa having a lot of the possession, Iwashita and Niwa did not do too much wrong at those times and that was down to the influence of our new goalkeeper. It was a very promising debut for Masaaki and you could really tell he has a lot more quality that the departed Fujigaya and he really will save us many points this year. A faultless debut – a return to Niigata on the books next which will test him personally and professionally.
The table is only a week old so there is not too much point in dwelling on it, but Gamba are one of seven teams to have lost on match day one including The Pigs. So not all that bad. We are not in the relegation zone as we did not lose by 2-0, 4-0 or 5-0 for the teams below us.
Photo taken from Gamba Osaka’s Official Facebook. No copyright infringement intended. Original here.
Our return to J1 starts with a spicy-looking fixture as we are back with a bang, hosting fierce and hated rivals Urawa Reds. With a kick-off time of 19:00 JST, all eyes will turn to this fixture as the last of the day. Banpaku will be raring to go after a long and hard winter without our beloved team and anything but a win will be disappointing the sold-out crowd.
This year I have decided to focus only on Gamba to conserve my time on the most precious thing to me in the entire world so there will be no analysis on the opponents we play.
So to the previous fixture between the two sides which took place on the 22nd September 2012 in Saitama. The Reds were chasing the title whilst we were fighting for survival but it did not seem to be the case on the day as we strolled to a 5-0 win with a brace each from Leandro and Paulinho with Abe starting the scoring off. The tables were still reversed at the end of the season though with Urawa taking 3rd place whilst we took 17th…
The last tie between the two at Banpaku was a 2-1 defeat for us despite Sato making it 1-0 from a header but our ability to concede late in games that season was prevalent with Umesaki after Haraguchi made it 1-1 on 30 minutes.
Injuries for us have come frequently after our training camps in Okinawa and Miyazaki yielded none. Usami and Okazaki are both out for at least another 7 weeks or so. Sato, Kurata and Endo all had knocks during the last week and it seems like Kurata might miss out on the starting eleven at least this week. Sato and Endo should be in contention to start though which is very good news. Who plays as the striker as well as wingers is unclear with two sites both having different predictions but if Abe and Futagawa are fit then they will start, as will Sato, meaning just a place on the bench for the likes of Omori and Lins. Centre-back should see Niwa and Iwashita although this does scare me a lot and Nishino needs to be played at this level sooner rather than later, whilst Kaji will probably get the nod over Yonekura. There will not be any surprises elsewhere, however. It looks like only Masaaki Higashiguchi will be making his full debut at the first attempt.
I do not know what to expect from the match tomorrow except to at least avoid defeat. The players just need to show that we are ready for J1 again and that we can compete and beat some of the best. We need to play with no fear and have confidence – but beating tight at the back might be a problem for us if Niwa and Iwashita hit their usual styles.
COME ON GAMBA OASKA!
9 – Lins
Everyone has high expectations of the man who netted 11 goals in 34 appearances for his former club in Brazil which is a great tally considering his side ended up just above the relegation zone. Whilst he probably will not play as a centre forward as many people want, he should be played off the main striker to good effect. He will need some time to get accustomed to the country and the league and I think he will be better next season. Nevertheless, you cannot help but to expect good things from the off considering we bought him out of a contract with just 6 months remaining. Getting into double figures in the league will be a successful season if he was to achieve it and he will get the chance with Usami out for two months.
20 – Akihiro Sato
It was a tough 2013 for Sato but he finally made his comeback after a year out with a knee injury. He was limited to mainly substitute appearances but did score on his return to Banpaku. Whether he starts alongside Usami will be interesting to see but I am expecting to see the Sato of 2012 back amongst our ranks. His J1 debut season in 2012 was excellent and showed us that Sato can make it in J1 and score plenty of goals whilst creating a bunch to, so whether he starts or is on the bench, his impact will be more often than not great. I hope he can stay injury free and show us what we have missed sorely over the last 18 months or so since his injury, especially with Usami injured now – we will be depending on Sato a lot during the early part of the season.
24 – Naoki Ogawa
Just like Yuto Uchida, Ogawa joins from the Youth team and spent time in training with the top team last year, as well as being part of the national team set-up at their age category. Although he calls himself an attacking midfielder, Naoki has been designated as a striker this year – and we might just need him with Usami injured for the first part of the season. I would expect him to get games somewhere during this time but whether he is limited to mainly Nabisco Cup or stupid J3 games, only time will tell. It will probably be more of a bedding-in season for Naoki but expect him to show glimpses of his future quality when the time comes.
39 – Takashi Usami
Oh what a real shame that Usami is also injured for around 8 weeks! Having been the difference between Gamba finishing 2nd in J2 to us actually being the champions, his loss will be huge. Having said that, he scored no goals in pre-season but should still be full of confidence when he returns having banged the goals in during his less than half a season with us in J2. He said he wants 15 goals this year and it might be tough due to his injury but he can definitely do it. He will need to hit the ground running when he returns and hope that the other guys can cover for him until then. He will definitely be a difference this year, but in what positive form, I do not know.
7 – Yasuhito Endo
If Endo can play further forward instead of sitting in defensive midfield this season then I think he can have a great impact on the team. That is not to belittle his effect anyway, as he is always composure and assured but you do always feel that a man of his stature could have given more to the team last season when we needed it. His best appearances came when he was pushed behind the striker and was given freedom to play. Give him that chance and we shall see him at his best. Adding a few more goals to his tally would be easier in that position too and you would expect him to do so. And of course it will be no surprise to see him voted into the J1 Best Eleven come December…
10 – Takahiro Futagawa
An honest, hard-working and loyal player to Gamba, Futagawa is coming towards the end of his career. This does not stop him putting in quietly brilliant performances on a regular basis, albeit lasting usual an hour or so. I expect to see him playing a significant role again this year but will be hoping to see his space taken by the likes of Abe and Omori – that is not to say I would not be happy to see Futagawa playing, but he needs to start ceding his regular position. When he does play, I expect the usually top level of performance. His abilities all over the pitch will be needed back in J1.
11 – Shu Kurata
He was on course to be our player of the season in 2013 before getting injured for around 15 weeks and Shu did not seem quite back to his top level on his return. I expect him to play on the wing behind the striker and work a lot in attack and defence, switching around when going forward. He will be in the starting eleven more often than not and it will be extremely interesting to see if he can recapture his form of 2013. Shu has had plenty of time since October to get match fit and I am sure he will be raring to go come March 1st – and I am 100% he will be wonderful once again.
13 – Hiroyuki Abe
Abe had an on/off season in 2013. He started off promising enough but then alternated between good and poor performances. Injuries cut his season down towards the end of the season but he has been in good form during pre-season, netting in 3 of the 4 games. If Abe can keep his fitness I am sure he can be as good as he was in his first season in 2012, but also be a regular starter. His work ethic will be very important and whilst I do not expect him to start every single match, I do expect that when he does starts, he will be giving us good performances more often than not. I’d expect him to start the games where tracking his marker on the wing will be pivotal to our success.
15 – Yasuyuki Konno
It finally seems plausible to believe that Konno will be a full-time holding midfielder. Pre-season has seen him start, more often or not, along side Tatsuya Uchida in the volante position. His play in “defence” was a nuisance and wore the team down more than anything else but his play in the midfield was excellent. Hopefully he can stay in midfield and live up to the hype and expectation that he joined with two years ago. He can be a superb asset back in J1 and should command the midfield. He will need to help along Uchida or Okazaki (if either of them partners him) and take responsibility as the main man there, starting attacks as well as breaking them down. If he stays in midfield, I am expecting a productive season from Konno.
17 – Tomokazu Myojin
I honest believe this will be Myojin’s final season as a professional footballer. He often does different training to the rest of the squad and was injured for more than half of the season last year, also losing his regular starting position to Tatsuya Uchida. That is not to say that Myojin cannot be useful – on the contrary, he will give us a level-headed, experienced approach if and when he plays. You cannot play professionally for 18 full years having picked up 480 league appearances without being a great player. Unfortunately, Myojin seems to have lost that edge that once made him a wonderful player. I have no doubt that he will be pivotal at some point or another and we need his experience back in J1.
19 – Kotaro Omori
Omori took his time breaking into the first team last season but did extremely well from that moment on. His full-debut was foreshadowed by brief substitute appearances that underlined his potential and his debut against Vissel Kobe showed a tenacious and eager player ready to stake his claim. He bagged assists after assists and finally scored his first professional goal against Kyoto Sanga. I think he will be given more chances this year to develop and become a key figure in the team – whether he will be starting often is another question. I am sure that when he does start, he will take his chance. He will get better game after game, and I cannot wait to see that.
25 – Kenya Okazaki
His slim chances of starting games in 2014 was hampered even further by picking up an injury in training that will put him out for the best part of 2 months. Despite all of that though, I doubt Kenya will be starting many games when he is fit. He will likely be a bench warmer and as it is his season year with Gamba now, he needs to start asserting his presence onto the starting eleven on a regular basis. Whether he will be able to do this, I am not sure as there is Konno, Uchida, Endo and maybe even Myojin ahead of him in his preferred position. He will be a useful squad player nonetheless but he should be aiming for higher and better than that. Performances against Tochigi SC and Giravanz Kitakyushu give me hope that he can be a good player.
27 – Tatsuya Uchida
He had a rather wonderful year in 2013, didn’t he? Uchida broke into the team as a midfielder for the first time as was pretty much a regular in the starting eleven thanks to that faith put into him by Kenta Hasegawa. His stints in the team were cut short whenever Konno and Endo joined together in defensive midfield but with the move of Endo behind the striker, Uchida claimed the position as his own, ahead of rookie Kenya Okazaki. I think Uchida will be in the starting eleven more often than not but he will need to be patient and show more control of the midfield – he was overwhelmed by stronger midfielders in J2. Only just turned 22 though, he will definitely get his fair share of chances and he has to take them with Myojin, Konno and Endo all viable candidates to take his spot.
2 – Evson
Little is known about our first winter transfer arrival but Evson has a lot to live up to. He can play as either a central midfielder or a centre back, with the latter his probable position for us. He seems to have good reading of the game and will be learning the ropes with us having spent his early career in the lower Brazilian leagues. Rumours of him being homesick are probably true but he has at least a season with us to get used to Japan. Whether he will get into the starting eleven is questionable and if so, who does he partner? Taking the number 2 jersey from Oh Jae-Suk will be pushing him into the match-day squad you feel but I think we will be seeing the best of him towards the end of the season and next year if he wants to extend his loan.
3 – Takaharu Nishino
His breakthrough season pushed Nishino into the U-22 national team for the Olympics of 2016 (as captain no less) but this season will be a big test of his quality. Whilst he was assured and relatively faultless in J2, J1 will bring him up against tougher opposition to deal with, thus bringing him up a level. He will need to command a starting position more often with a regular partner (which is still undecided). He would be in my starting eleven though and should be given time at this level with a J1 experienced partner. Taking number 3 suggests he will get the chances he needs; I am looking forward to him improving thanks to the good and bad times he will have.
4 – Hiroki Fujiharu
More of the same please Fujiharu! You simply cannot see Fujiharu bequeathing his regular left-back spot to anyone else and will add to his 80 consecutive league starts with no substitutions in that time. It will be great for him to have a superb up-and-coming left-back like Yuto Uchida behind him in the pecking order to teach the skills of his trade. Hiroki will need to add more decisive crosses to garner more assists and try not to be caught out too high up the pitch in his offensive mode but you cannot fault him at all. This guy will just keep getting better, getting more fans, and more assists and goals. I repeat, more of the same!
5 – Daiki Niwa
Despite being a great partner to Takaharu Nishino towards the end of the season, I do not feel that he did enough to command a starting position this year at centre-back. He is only comfortable with Nishino and actually looked competent. I think he will be on the bench a lot of the time and will probably get games in the Nabisco Cup the most. Nevertheless, when does play he should not change his passion and desire whilst playing with the competence show alongside Nishino. I hope he can step-up when we need him and continue his good form from the end of last season – but this year, with any defensive partner.
6 – Kim Jung-Ya
Having spent a hugely unsuccessful loan spell with Sagan Tosu in 2013, I am disappointed to see Kim back at Banpaku. The only positive thing about his return was it allowed Katsuhisa Inamori to move out on loan to Gainare Tottori to pick up some experience in J3. My expectations of Kim are non-existent so any positive news is good news. I can see Kim being the last choice to get in at centre-back and we will rarely see him if his lack of quality shown over the last two seasons is anything to go by. His J1 experience may be crucial if needed, however. I seriously do doubt that that will be the case however.
8 – Keisuke Iwashita
He had a tough season last year, picking up several injuries to prevent him from really going anywhere. One would think that if he does stay fit this season, he will be partnering Takaharu Nishino at centre-back and that would do them both the world of good. Iwashita is an improved version of Niwa but needs someone secure next to him and Nishino will give him that. Iwashita will be a threat down the other end too and his J1 experience will be needed next to whoever he starts with. I am expecting good things from him in 2014 as long as he stays fit along with the usual ridiculous amounts of silly fouls and yellow cards.
14 – Koki Yonekura
The new man from JEF caused excitement to flow through the Gamba fan circles and with good reason. The midfielder turned right-back picked up the most assists as a defender last season in J2 and netted 6 goals as a Fujiharu-esque attacking full-back. The even better thing is that he will be giving health competition to Akira Kaji at right-back as the vice-captain was basically guaranteed his starting position in 2013 despite several mistakes. It will be an interesting tussle between the two for the regular starting role but Koki could easily take the right midfield spot. It will be interesting to see whether Koki can be so effective in J1 but I am expecting him to be a wonderful acquisition.
21 – Akira Kaji
Kaji had a bit of an odd season last year. He was the undisputed number one choice for right-back and only missed games due to suspension or injury. Nevertheless, he did make a lot of silly and poor errors (just like Konno) but he was always a threat when going forward. Fresh competition in the form of Koki Yonekura will give him the kick up the backside he needed but whether he is the first choice right-back now or not remains to be seen – he needed some competition. You would still expect Kaji to be in and around the match day squad every week and I am sure if he can fix the mistakes he made in 2014, he and Yonekura will have an interesting battle to see who will come out as number one.
22 – Oh Jae-Suk
It seems like a miracle that Oh is still playing for Gamba. He was never given a chance in 2013 to show his talent despite Kaji’s errors and there were rumours of a return to Korea. Add in the fact that his number has been changed from number 2 to 22, things do not look great. Nevertheless, he is still around and will be looking to get more chances this year, probably more at left-back than right-back. He will be a very squad player is my feeling, being able to play on either side of the defence, but that is all I expect of him. If he does not make an impact this year then I can see him returning back to Korea and who would blame him? I hope he does get a chance to at least show the fans what he has…
23 – Yuto Uchida
Yuto is definitely one to watch this year. He is only 18 years old and removing Fujiharu from that left-back position is going to be a gargantuan task and this means that Yuto will probably be the understudy to Fujiharu throughout the season. His biggest chance to shine will be in the Nabisco Cup to start with and he really does have the potential to become a huge star. All of the Gamba Youth followers know that he is incredible considering his age and you don’t captain your country at his age for no reason. It might be a slow season for him but it will be exciting to see him grow and become a superb player – keep your eyes peeled for this guy.
1 – Masaaki Higashiguchi
One would thoroughly expect Higashiguchi to be between the posts come the 1st March against Urawa Reds. As replacements go for Yosuke Fujigaya, I am sure there were many could have been an improvement but the former Gamba Youth player who was let go way back when due to his small stature will be looking to make a big impact on his return to Osaka. He joined from the growing Albirex Niigata and will be eyeing a return to the national team too; for now, he needs to keep J1-experienced Kohei Kawata out of reach of the first team and I would expect that to be the case. I am very confident that Higashiguchi will save us a fair few points in 2014 – a superb transfer in. We finally have a goalkeeper who will give the defence confidence in his actions.
16 – Kohei Kawata
Having spent 2013 on loan to J1 outfit Ventforet Kofu, it looks as if Kawata will be the back-up choice to Higashiguchi, although I am sure he will be fighting for the starting position. He started half of Ventforet’s league games last year and picked up 5 more in other competitions. It was always a tussle for number 1 spot at Kofu with Kota Ogi but Kohei looked like he won it overall, so it is strange they let him return. However, he will give us an excellent option in case Higashiguchi gets injured. I expect Kohei to be starting the Nabisco Cup games to begin with, and we shall see where he goes from there.
18 – Atsushi Kimura
Kimura loves Gamba and that love will never tear him away from the team unless he was told to move on. He will be content with playing second fiddle or even third fiddle this season and it would be an achievement for him to make the bench this season. I feel sorry for him because I think he could have been a very good goalkeeper if he was given the chance, but when he has no desire to leave the team he loves, there is not much that can be done. The best he can hope for is a few injuries to the guys ahead of him to get his chance of throwing a spanner into Hasegawa’s goalkeeping choices.
31 – Ken Tajiri
I am very surprised Ken still with us for 2014 considering that Numata and Inamori were both let out on loan for the upcoming season. With the return of Kohei Kawata and Tajiri behind Kimura in the goalkeeper pecking order and all three of the goalkeepers that are ahead of him filling the quota for 2013, we do not really need a 4th choice goalkeeper, especially at Tajiri’s age. It would have been nice to see Ken go and pick up some experience as a first team regular in at least a J3 side to show Hasegawa whether he has what it takes. Nevertheless, remaining at Gamba and having Higashiguchi and Kawata ahead of him to learn from, it might be a good chance to grow learning alongside them.