Takashi Usami is coming home

Takashi UsamiIt is with delight that I can tell you that Takashi Usami (Midfielder) will be back in Osaka to help in our J2 campaign as he has decided to leave European football alone, for now. After we found out last month that Takashi’s loan deal at Hoffenheim of Germany would come to an end, there has been a huge amount of speculation as to whether he would be staying in Europe or if he would be heading back to Banpaku to ply his trade once more. Having chosen the latter, it’s my job to detail his return.

News broke around 5pm today in Japan that Usami will be back to play for us. Many fans have been positive about his return and cannot wait for him to pull on our blue and black uniform once more. There have been people doubting if he is actually as good as others have said he is but it is quite clear that a then-19 year old Japanese heading to Bayern Munich was always going to have a tough time of it, especially with the likes of Robben and Ribéry taking Takashi’s standard position.

For the 2012/13 season, Takashi took a step down to join Hoffenheim and after starting promisingly in a personal sense, the club found itself embroiled in a relegation battle and having been managed by 4 different (caretaker) managers in his time at Hoffenheim and with the team looking to get results any way they could, they cut out Takashi’s flair play and just about survived at the end of the season.

As neither team wanted to buy Takashi at the end of his respective loans, the speculation was that no European wanted him. SC Freiburg apparently were showing some interest in the player but they could not either afford either his loan, his purchase or to take a risk on him.

There is also the question of whether he was able to adapt to German lifestyle and it seems like he did not manage to. Under his situations at just 19 years old at the time would be tough for anyone and it probably took its toll on him. Returning to Japan and specifically Gamba should hopefully get his confidence back and now being 21, he can use his time in Japan as a way to reflect on what went wrong and use it to build another path back to European football in the future if he so wishes. He has time on his side.

Usami will be joining up with the team in training from the 18th June but will not be able to play until the 19th July. This would mean that his first appearance for Gamba in 2 years could come against Vissel Kobe at Banpaku on the 20th June. Kenta Hasegawa will get a whole month to get Usami up to scratch and allow even more competition in the squad. If Ienaga stays, then he, Usami, Paulinho, Futagawa and Abe will all be vying for those wide positions.

Welcome back to Takashi and we hope that you can dazzle us once again with your talent. More importantly, get us back home now that you are home! Things are looking exciting.

Match Preview – 01/06/2013 – J2: Section 17 – Gamba Osaka v Tochigi SC

Being top of the pile for the first time this season is fantastic but the first challenge to keep hold of it comes in the shape of play-off contenders Tochigi SC who will be looking to test out a Gamba without last weekend’s goal-scorers Konno and Endo thanks to Blue Samurai duty. The match takes place at Banpaku with a 16:00 kick-off time.

Tochigi enter this game on the back of a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to strugglers Yokohama FC which saw them drop one place in the league table to 4th after being leapfrogged by Nagasaki and Kyoto. They seem to be, nonetheless, a better team from that of the 2012 season that finished in 11th place.

Gamba Osaka PredictionGamba of course topped the table last weekend thanks to a goal direct from the corner by captain Yasuhito Endo. That tallied the 3rd victory in a row and ended the month of May on a high for our boys as they deservedly took all 3 points away from Ehime in Shikoku.

Now that J1 is on its “mid-season” break, J2 has the majority of its matches shifted to primetime on Saturdays. There has been just the single meeting between Gamba and Tochigi sides heading into the clash, with Gamba being the victors in a 3-2 win in the 3rd round of the Emperor’s Cup in 2010. Goals came from Shoki Hirai, Lee Keun-Ho and Shohei Otsuka on that day as Tochigi lead the match 2-0 at half-time, only for Otsuka to get the winner in the 86th minute.

We have yet to lose a game at home this season and have not been beaten at Banpaku since 25th July 2012. If we are to become champions of J2, we certainly need more wins at home instead of draws but having won 3 out of the last 4 at home, things are moving in a positive direction. It is going to be a great test of Tochigi’s Top 6 credentials, even without the likes of Endo and Konno, and they sure will be a test of out championship-winning /automatic promotion credentials.

Tochigi’s away form of recent has been particularly impressive, having won 4 and lost 1 from their last 5 games on the road. The defeat came at the hands of Ehime in a shock 3-0 defeat. They bounced back with a 4-1 dismantling of Roasso Kumamoto on the road but none of their away day ventures have been against the best teams in the division yet. Their only other defeat on the road this season came to Montedio Yamagata, who are about as close to Gamba as any of their opponents on the road so far. They need a real test.

Tochigi SC v Yokohama FCTaking a peek at the teams and of course, the biggest problem for Gamba is filling the spaces left by Endo and Konno. Looking at Konno first, then we can only presume that the erratic Daiki Niwa will get his chance once more to throw fear into our hearts as we have heard nothing of Keisuke Iwashita’s return from injury that – he was scheduled to return a couple of weeks ago, so let’s hope Hasegawa has been saving him for now. It’s a lot simpler when looking at covering Endo – Tomokazu Myojin will most likely take the spot alongside the now-regular starter Tatsuya Uchida. Otherwise, the team would almost pick itself. The only exception to this would come from Paulinho who had a terrible first half last weekend whilst his replacement, Akihiro Ienaga, was exceptional, and I would be tempted to play him over the Brazilian.

Here is another one of my theories. I am a self-professed dis-liker of Myojin in central midfield. Therefore, I would prefer to see someone similar to Endo take over the midfield role he has vacated. Simply put, Takahiro Futagawa would get my vote even if it is not his natural position. Like-for-like, Endo and Futagawa are uncannily similar. This would allow Paulinho to get another chance in the starting eleven along with Ienaga. Additionally, I hate Niwa, as most people know, so I would love to see Kaji play at centre-back and allow Oh Jae-Suk to start a match for the first time in his Gamba career. But who am I? Just a dreamer… and so my realistic team prediction is up to your right.

As for Tochigi, they have a few players out of contention and they all happen to be midfielders. The biggest losses of the four will be their very own Paulinho and Takagi, with both having missed only 5 matches between them this season. The other two midfielders out are Onodera and Motohashi. Tochigi have already had to use 23 players this season compared to our 21, although our main bunch have players have had the lion’s share of time on the pitch. Tochigi do boast a former Japanese international in their ranks in the form of Santos who is edging towards his 36th birthday but has only started 1 match this season.

Tomokazu MyojinWith my own personal and daring line-up probably stretching the boundaries too much, I’ll have to say that Tomokazu Myojin will get a starting berth on Saturday and will be my man to watch. He has got big boots to fill and when he has played, he has seemed to be off the pace at times and old but can force his way back into the picture with a solid performance. With Endo gone, we need someone to sit next to Uchida with experience and keep Tochigi at bay. He may lack in the flair that Endo has but at a time where we just need to make it through unscathed against strong opposition, I want to see Myojin step up and deliver, unlike when he and Takei failed against Kumamoto and JEF the last time Endo and Konno were gone. The same goes for the replacement for Konno. Do your best!

The game will be a real test for both teams and it will be extremely interesting to see how we step up and also how Tochigi come and play given that they have not beaten a big name on the road for some time. I am hinting at a 2-1 win for Gamba simply because of the attacking flair we have. Leandro was quiet last weekend but with Kurata, Futagawa and either of Ienaga or Paulinho, they should be causing this team some serious problems. If Niwa plays, we will not keep a clean sheet but we have been fairly good in defence recently but goals have gone in through mistakes, which need to stop sooner rather than later. A win would be a real statement of intent from the winners but a winning start to a potentially Endo and Konno-less month would go a long way to getting some high confidence. I am confident they can do it!

Photo taken from J’s goal. No copyright infringement intended. Original here.

Match Report – 26/05/2013 – J2: Section 16 – Ehime FC 1-2 Gamba Osaka

Knowing the results from earlier in the day, Gamba just about managed to hold off a determined and dogged Ehime FC at the Ninjineer Stadium in front of 10,381 people as the two national team members said “goodbye for now” to the fans by helping us over the line to take top spot in J2 for the first time this season and away from the grubby little hands of neighbours Vissel Kobe.

The hosts made the expected change of taking Sonoda out and they replaced him with Dai as they stuck with the 3-4-2-1 formation that they had used against then-table toppers Vissel Kobe. They came to play football, particularly in the first half, with Mihara being the most influential player down their left-hand side against Akira Kaji.

As for Gamba, we stuck with the same eleven from the past 2 victories against Avispa Fukuoka and ThespaKusatsu Gunma with Kenta Hasegawa allowing all the players to keep their levels consistent. Endo and Konno lined-up for their final match before heading off with Japan to secure qualification to the World Cup and their participation was crucial. On the bench, Kenya Okazaki replaced Shota Kawanishi as no additional striker was placed there, leaving us to think of the reasons for their (Kawanishi’s and Hirai’s) exclusion from the squad.

Ehime FC XI – Akimoto, Dai, Kobara, Urata, Ishii, Murakami, Yoshimura, Mihara, Akai, Kawahara, Kato.
Ehime FC Subs – Kaneda, Kuroki, Sonoda, Tomic, Higashi, Matsumoto, Watanabe.
Gamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Nishino, Konno, Fujiharu, Endo, Uchida, Futagawa, Paulinho, Kurata, Leandro.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Oh, Niwa, Abe, Myojin, Okazaki, Ienaga.

1st Half:
ガンバスタメンGamba kicked-off and got down the left swiftly, only for the pass to Fujiharu being too hard and running out for a goal kick. Endo was caught out in possession a few moments later but he managed to end the danger at the 3rd attempt as he halted Ehime’s advance on the edge of our penalty area. Then came the barrage of corners from Ehime as they notched 4 corners in a 3 minute spell of total pressure on Fujigaya’s goal although the keeper had to just admire the defending in front of him as all of the corners were dealt with at ease.

We stepped forward in order to get a stranglehold on the match as Konno played a ball from the heart of the defence to Futagawa, who linked with Endo to get into the box but he was well tackled but the forward movement did not stop as Paulinho had a shot blocked from 20 yards on the right. He then tried a cross-field ball which was poor and cut out, only for us to regain possession with ease. A nervy start by both teams, but it got worse for us in the 11th minute.

Gamba held possession in-and-around the half way line without going far as Endo passed to Kaji. He did not look as he played a flicked pass towards Nishino but Kato had come over to close down the space and picked up the loose pass. He drove at Nishino who had to keep an eye out for the attacker to his right and so he kept dropping back which allowed Kato to pick his spot just inside the penalty area, firing a low shot into the bottom corner to Fujigaya’s left, giving the keeper no chance. It was such a sloppy piece of play by Kaji as, with his experience, that should never happen but Ehime’s pressing football squeezed the space as we were too slow to move the ball. 1-0 to the hosts but with plenty of time for us to get back into it.

Enter Selfish Paulinho… the Brazilian firstly shooting needlessly as he cut in from the right, allowing the hosts to counter attack, and he then poorly flicked a clearance from a corner straight to the unmarked Murakami who belted one from at least 35 yards past of the post. The worst was to come as Futagawa deliciously played in Kurata down the middle with a ball from the left and at an acute angle, he hit the ball right at Akimoto but the rebound came to Paulinho around 14 yards from goal but he rushed the shot and blazed well, well over.

Gamba kept the ball for a good 3 minutes after that but overplayed once again in midfield in the 20th minute where Ehime targeted the right-back position to get Mihara jinking down the by-line and forcing Konno to deny him but leading to a corner, whilst Paulinho cleared well for another one which was easily dealt with by the defence.

Ehime FC

The next few moments saw Gamba grow into the game with frustrating endings. First Leandro then Futagawa failed to play in their counterparts whilst Kurata worked his arse off to find Paulinho who shockingly found Row Z, again unmarked. Kurata did it again just before 30 minutes, tackling from the front but his pass was fluffed by his team mates once more. He then went by himself after Paulinho cut out a poor cross-field ball but Shu simply ran out of room with Leandro waiting for the pass. Fujiharu then crossed towards Paulinho but he could not direct his attempt on goal thanks to good Ehime pressure.

There was little in the way of action for the next 10 minutes or so as both teams battled it out in midfield with it being blatantly obvious that Leandro was slightly isolated thanks to Ehime’s tactics. Yet another long ball from back to front from Konno allowed Leandro this time to get in-behind the defence but his final touch was too strong and Akimoto smothered the ball at his feet and out towards Kurata who fired slightly high and wide with a semi-open goal from 20 yards. The final piece of action came in the last minute of added-on time as Uchida spectacularly played several one-twos with his team mates but seemed very surprised to be in the box and had the ball nicked away from his foot as he swung for goal.

It was 1-0 to the hosts but Gamba had certainly had their chances to score and this needed to be built on from the second half. There was a simple lack of edge up front with Leandro not really involved whilst all the good chances were wasted by Paulinho. Ehime’s pressing was working to a point but it felt like we could get a goal if the attacking was sharpened up a bit.

2nd Half:
That was certainly what happened as Akihiro Ienaga replaced Paulinho as the Brazilian certainly was not having his best day at the office. At that time, you could question the decision because Paulinho could easily have been given a chance to make up for the half but Hasegawa decided on something sooner rather than later and, for once, it paid dividends.

We started with a point to prove but the final ball in the first 5 minutes of the half came as a tale of misplaced final passes as Leandro and Kurata could not get it right whilst Leandro did pick Ienaga well at the back post, only for his marker to nick the ball away after he tracked back well. Fujiharu then sent in a delightful ball seemingly destined for Kurata’s head but he was “nudged” out of it. We finally got our first corner of the game in the 52nd minute, followed by another without too much danger on the Ehime goal. Akai had the only chance before the hour for the hosts as he dragged a shot wide whilst Futagawa wasted a glorious chance for Gamba after Ienaga played in Kurata, who coolly played in the number 10 but he blazed over from 12 yards.

Akai was booked for the hosts on their left side with the resulting play ending with a corner, and then another one, where we finally got the goal we had deserved. Endo crossed towards the back post where Nishino was lurking and he showed some good strength (and all 187cm of himself) to beat his marker to the ball and head back across goal to find his centre-back partner Konno free at the other post to side-foot a volley into the net and draw us level, with the ball sneaking past the defender close to the post. With around an hour gone, it was all to play for now!

Gamba OsakaThe standard swap of Futagawa for Abe happened in the 64th minute and it did not take him long to combine with the other sub Ienaga, as he drilled a pass towards the number 41 who played a delightful pass over the top of the defence from 20 yards and straight into the path of Endo who had made a burst from midfield unnoticed by the Ehime defence. He watched the ball fall onto his left foot and from 7 yards he volleyed onto the near post. There was an opportunity to go for the opposite corner but the combination play was exquisite. Shortly after, Leandro headed right at Akimoto in goal following a Fujiharu cross. It was a question of time, you felt.

The hosts almost spoilt that as they attacked well down their right and sent in a wicked cross across the face of goal but neither of their 2 players attacked the inviting ball. They took off the booked Akai for Watanabe but Ienaga threatened next from 25 yards after Abe broke away and cut in from the left to find Ienaga but he fired his shot narrowly wide of the far post. It would have been a screamer.

It was all Ienaga for the next few minutes – firstly, he tackled the Ehime defender in the box but could not quite find Leandro and then in the 79th minute he got his foot to the ball ahead of the Ehime defender after Kurata did some great carrying of the ball, all to win a free kick 30 yards from goal and ready for Endo to whip in. He did so, towards Nishino, who was just beaten by his marker to the ball but he at least got us a corner.

This is where the strange/genius part comes into the equation. Endo whipped the ball into the near post with nobody deciding to attack it but they did not need to as his corner sailed straight into the net after the defender on the post was too short and Akimoto was positioned too far to the other side of the goal. Endo tests the goalkeepers from time to time with this shot and it worked. We came from behind to take a 2-1 lead with just 8 minutes remaining. And boy weren’t we laughing at that strange but superb goal!

Cue the subs for both teams. In order to protect the lead, Leandro was sacrificed for Myojin whilst Matsumoto and Higashi came on for the hosts who needed to go for it. Of course, they had the lion’s share of possession (it seemed) in the last 5 minutes along with stoppage time but Matsumoto and Mihara failed to test Fujigaya, whilst Ienaga took on 3 or 4 Ehime players in the corner to waste time which saw the mission accomplished.

Having known that Kobe had lost and we would go top with a win, the lads showed great character to get the lead and hold onto it after falling behind. The change of Paulinho for Ienaga was inspired as the latter showed us what he can do when he really wants to play football. The captain was an absolute beast and the performance by Shu Kurata, in spite of having less to go on, was hard-working and second to none. The most important thing was that we got the job done and beat a very determined opponent. They gave it their all and never knew when to quit – they were simply beaten by better players.

Man of the Match:
遠藤保仁I do not think this is a difficult choice. Yasuhito Endo may have scored a great/lucky goal, but he topped-off a brilliant month for himself with yet another top performance. Shu Kurata and the very effective Akihiro Ienaga pushed to stake their claim on the prize with the former working as hard as ever and the latter having a huge impact on the match when he came on, but Endo simply ran the show – particularly in the second half – and dug us out of a hole when we needed a show of character. He will be hard to replace for at least the next 2 games but he was involved in both goals and dragged Ehime backwards and showed all the qualities that he is loved for. We will miss you, Yatto!

Where it leaves both teams:
It was a fantastic Sunday for Gamba as we snatched 1st position for the first time this season away from the leaders-from-the-start Vissel Kobe, who shockingly lost 1-0 to Gainare Tottori, a team that had not won for 12 games since a 3-1 home win to Mito Hollyhock and they were battered 6-0 last weekend too. The top 6 had a turbulent day too as V-Varen Nagasaki and Kyoto Sanga both jumped to 3rd and 4th respectively as Nagasaki beat JEF who dropped to 6th whilst Kyoto snatched victory at the death against a yo-yo-esque Montedio Yamagata. Tochigi SC drew 0-0 with Yokohama to hold 5th position which meant that Fagiano Okayama, who lost for the first time at home in over 10 months, dropped out of the top 6.

Ehime dropped one place to 16th but gave it a real go and simply looked tired towards the end of the match. They will be in no trouble regarding relegation but it does not seem like they can push much higher than mid-table. Teams around them are very topsy-turvy so they can creep up the league and will be looking to bounce back against Tokyo Verdy, whilst Gamba take on Tochigi SC at Banpaku next Saturday.

What a great day!

Stats
Ehime FC 1-2 Gamba Osaka

Photos taken from Gamba Osaka’s Official Website and calciomatome. No copyright infringement intended. Originals here and here.

Match Preview – 26/05/2013 – J2: Section 16 – Ehime FC v Gamba Osaka

The first trip of the season to Shikoku is next on the away day schedule as Gamba look to get 3 wins in a row as they head to the land of the mikan as they are hosted by the orange-clad Ehime FC at the superbly named Ninjineer Stadium. The match will be last of Round 16 of J2 match day with a kick-off time of 19:30 local time.

Ehime FC v Vissel KobeThe hosts come into this game on the back of a 4-2 thumping defeat, at home, against table-toppers Vissel Kobe with the away team having a 1-0 lead that lasted until the 70th minute, with 5 goals coming in the last 20 minutes which saw Ehime concede, score, then concede twice more that all but killed the game, with Kobe’s 4th being gift-wrapped by the defence. They did get a strange penalty which was dispatched but it was too little too late for them.

They currently sit in 15th place and will probably end-up in a position in the same nothing-to-play-for vain. Their current home form is not that great either, with the first two games being drawn, followed by 5 games alternating in defeats and wins. Those last 5 games have seen the other top 6 sides bar JEF go to the Ningineer Stadium with all but Tochigi SC picking up the 3 necessary points. With Gamba’s away record, we could certainly see them adding to the top 6’s victories over Ehime in Ehime.

We all know that Gamba come into this match on a 5-1 home win against ThespaKusatsu Gunma as well as an impressive away win against Avispa Fukuoka. Spirits could not be higher in the Blue and Black camp and the aim will be nothing less than 3 points.

Looking at the teams, firstly Ehime, we can have a crack at predicting the teams for both sides. Ehime played a 3-4-2-1 formation against Kobe last weekend, just like Thespa did against us, and they look set to keep it. They have 4 confirmed players injured for this game to take into account as Alain (DF) as well as Ito, Watanabe and Higashi (MF) are all ruled out. Nonetheless, they are expected to change Sonoda for Dai at the back and that is all. Despite losing, they will keep practically the same team, which cannot be said about our last few opponents.

Gamba Osaka

As for Gamba, Konno and Endo will make their last appearance before heading off with the national team to play Bulgaria in the Kirin Cup and then Australia to finally confirm their qualification for the World Cup. This could be the start of a whole month without the pair if they are selected for the Confederations’ Cup in Brazil. This aside, we will probably see the team that has been chosen for the last 2 games, and rightly so. There may be a temptation to start Myojin instead of Uchida to get him up to speed for the next game against Tochigi and this would not surprise me one bit, but I would like to see the youngster continue to grow next to Endo. Additionally, Keisuke Iwashita could be back on the bench, you would hope, as he will need to be ready to cover for Konno’s absence from next week. These are good problems in selection for Hasegawa, but the same team should be kept together.

I think (and I could well be wrong) that the only player that I have not told you to watch so far this season who remains in this starting eleven is Takahiro Futagawa, who got 3 assists last weekend and will be looking to add to those and his solitary goal for the season. He is the level-headed player in the midst of the front 4 and showed that with a superb display last weekend which got him his hat-trick of assists. His combination with the other 3 of Paulinho, Kurata and Leandro is brilliant and he is calm, composed but very deadly. If he hits the same form again this weekend, Ehime will certainly be in for a very very long night. He will more than likely have less time than every other player to do his job as Abe will inevitably be subbed in for him but Takahiro has been a pleasure to watch recently. More of the same please!

This weekend brings the same expectations of a Gamba win as last weekend did and I have to expect the same. We have had difficulty in keeping clean sheets recently but have made up for that with the goals. We have handed over more possession as a way to give us more space when we attack and if the forward 4 turn up for some more fun, I expect a 3-0 Gamba Osaka win. Ehime will certainly give it a shot as they did against Kobe as they have nothing to lose but these tactics will go in our favour, there are no doubts about that. Their top scorer and assister is striker Ishii but he has been played away from the centre forward position that takes away from an imminent threat up top. I fancy us to keep a clean sheet but even if we do not, we will score plenty to make up for it. I just cannot expect anything else, I really can’t. What about you?

The early route to Kokuritsu has been released for the Emperor’s Cup

Details were released today about this years’ edition of the Emperor’s Cup, or Tennouhai, which enters its 93rd edition. The pathway up until the 3rd has been revealed and so it is my job to tell you who Gamba Osaka may potentially face on route to exacting revenge for our loss in the final against Kashiwa Reysol on the 1st January this year.

Gamba will enter from the 2nd round and will face the winners of the 1st round tie between the representatives from Ehime and Kumamoto. Ehime’s prefectural representative will be discovered on the 4th August whilst Kumamoto’s will have to wait until 25th August. The two will then face off on the 1st September to see who will gain the chance to take one of the biggest names in Japanese football.

The match between Gamba and the winners of the 1st round tie will take place on 7th September, ending a hectic schedule for the opponents, particularly if it was to be the Kumamoto representatives, who would face 3 intense matches in 2 weeks.

KokuritsuShould Gamba win, then they will more than likely face current leaders of J1 Omiya Ardija. Of course this is not guaranteed either as they would have to play the winners from the 1st round tie between the Tottori and Okayama prefectural representatives, who will then make the trip to the NACK-5 Stadium in Saitama.

The venue for the 3rd round tie has yet to be announced but, along with how our prospective 2nd round opponents do, I will be ready to keep you up-to-date. For instant information, please follow me on Twitter – @GambaOsakaPride.

So who’s all for another trip to Kokuritsu, then?

Photo taken from J’s goal. No copyright infringement intended. Original here.

Match Report – 19/05/2013 – J2: Section 15 – Gamba Osaka 5-1 ThespaKusatsu Gunma

Oh Gamba, Gamba, Gamba. Sensational football when you wanted it, sometimes you stood too far off whilst that needed big home win I mentioned in my preview was attained in comfort, eventually. Only 8,045 people came to see this match full of goals (as was the entire J.League weekend) where we kept the pressure on at the top and put our opponents in the relegation play-off zone.

It came as no surprise that Kenta Hasegawa kept the same starting eleven and bench for this coming off the back of the impressive if so slightly squeaky end to the Avispa Fukuoka match last weekend. Gamba lined-up with a different line-up to normal: 4-4-2 to be exact, with Kurata playing advanced and next to Leandro whilst Paulinho was on the right of midfield and Futagawa on the left. At times, all 4 of them were in the others’ positions and fluidity was the starter, main course and dessert, it was that delicious to watch!

The visitors for the day, ThespaKusatsu Gunma, made many of the forecasted changes. Naito was replaced in goal by Kita, whilst the formation was also a major talking point before the game as they changed from a 4-2-3-1 from their defeat at the hands of Kyoto Sanga to a 3-4-2-1, with 2 holding midfielders and the main striker Hirashige being supported from the wings. Hwang came into the back 3, pushing Tada onto the right of midfield and Hozaki came in on the left. Segawa and Yokoyama were forced to make way, with the former presumably injured as Gunma could only name 5 substitutes instead of the permitted 7. They still came along to play football unlike the other teams at the bottom, which I admire them for, but this left spaces to exploit.

Gamba OsakaGamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Nishino, Konno, Fujiharu, Paulinho, Endo, Uchida, Futagawa, Kurata, Leandro.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Oh J.S., Niwa, Abe, Myojin, Ienaga, Kawanishi.
ThespaKusatsu Gunma XI – Kita, Inui, Nakamura, Hwang, Tada, Kato, Nagata, Hozaki, Aoki, Endo, Hirashige.
ThespaKusatsu Gunma XI – Naito, Koyanagi, Yokoyama, Kobayashi, Gotou.

1st Half:
Gunma got the match underway but were 1-0 down after just over 100 seconds on the clock as Paulinho, getting another chance to impress once again from the start, finished off a delightful and frighteningly swift move to get us on top immediately. Uchida picked the ball up around 10 yards in the Gunma half and played an incisive pass to Kurata who was given time to pick his head up and pass across to Futagawa who saw Paulinho on the move and sent a diagonal pass into the box and through the spacious defence. The Brazilian took one touch before curling the ball over and around the diving Kita in goal and into the bottom corner. The visitors gave away too much space but the movement was too swift for them to recover from one and two-touch passing. What a wonderful start!

It was extremely clear that Thespa were not coming to Banpaku to soak up the pressure and play on the counter; they were adamant on using a passing-style of football which is commendable and what you want weaker teams to do (i.e., their true style) but there were many occasions, particularly in the first half, where they simply misplaced simple passes, often in midfield which lead to Gamba showing them how it was done. Both teams wanted to press the other early on, which highlighted this desire to play football.

Thespa got their first corner in the 6th minute but was wasted as it was sent towards the edge of the area, whilst Gamba got our first a minute later with the ball skidding all the way across the box and coming to nothing. Gunma started to get into the game slightly after this, keeping the ball for around a minute without going too far, à la Gamba in recent home games, but could have been 2 goals down in the 12th minute after Paulinho was played in, this time on the left of the box, but his shot went inches wide of the right post. His Brazilian counterpart Leandro was decked around 30 yards from goal, which allowed Paulinho to convert 3 points (oh, but this is not rugby!). The visitors’ sloppy passes continued as Kurata was first denied in the box after a cross from the left whilst Leandro fired over after linking well with said-Kurata.

Out of the blue, Gunma were level. They had tried some fast passing down their right side in and around the halfway line but the last pass was over-hit and came to Nishino. Hirashige had not given up on the ball though and he blocked Nishino’s rather weak clearance and raced through on goal, with only Fujigaya to beat. He took one touch into the box and then rifled his shot low and hard past Fujigaya, who had no chance with the slippy, rain-soaked pitch, and the boys from Gunma were level in the 18th minute. It was a poor error by Nishino but he is only 19 and will learn from that – next time, he would do better to get his head up and survey his surroundings before deciding to hoof the ball away or even into danger.

ThespaKusatsu Gunma

Thespa certainly had their tails up as Hwang broke from defence to pick up a loose ball around 30 yards from Fujigaya’s goal, played a one-two and from the right of the box, produced a cross-cum-shot that hit the top of the bar. Fujigaya was on call only a minute later to beat Hirashige to an over-hit through ball but you could see that Gunma were pressing a lot high and harder and really sensed they could do something, while Gamba sat off too much and let them keep the ball although Endo did try to change this with a superb ball over the top to Paulinho who played in Leandro but he was well tackled.

Yet into the 26th minute and we were once again ahead. Kurata had drifted onto the left touchline and cut in and, ignoring Fujiharu on his outside, he passed to Leandro who adjusted himself slightly to return the pass with the outside of his foot and into Shu’s path, allowing him to take a touch and fire into the near post to restore our lead. That Kurata-Leandro combination worked a treat again and Leandro pulled the defender out of the way which allowed Kurata to get in on goal. The speed and space played their part, once more, but it was Kurata’s drive and insistence on getting the goal and his hard work to achieve that aim that was just delightful.

After that, we seemed a bit more energetic and comfortable as what turned out to be the hardest part of the game for us came to an end. Futagawa played in Leandro but his chip was sent for a corner which was caught at the second attempt from Kita. Leandro tried again as he fired straight at Kita after he had linked well with the impressive Paulinho. The visitors made their first substitution in the 32nd minute as Kato was taken off for Koyanagi although it did not seem like he was injured. Thespa then had a chance to level again as they played some good possession football and Hozaki flicked his header wide of the far post with another warning sign to the hosts. We responded through Fujiharu, who crossed towards top scorer Leandro but the ball was just behind him.

Uchida picked up a yellow card for an unknown reason but by the time we started questioning the decision, Leandro has bagged the goal that he had been threatening to score. Paulinho was on the right this time as he flicked a cheeky little ball down the line for Kaji to chase and chase he did as he got his head up and played the ball into the box. Leandro had peeled into space and struck the ball from 8 yards out as he was slipping but he still managed to steer the ball into the opposite corner and Kita again had no chance. The storm on the pitch had been weathered whilst the pre-match rain had aided Leandro this time to net his 10th goal of the season.

Gamba looked to be enjoying themselves here on in and it was a case of not wanting half time to come again. Endo was in complete control of the match whilst Uchida did some nice defensive play to intercept a long pass forward; nothing really happened in-between the goal and half time, with Gamba keeping their 2 goal lead going into the break.

2nd Half:
Tada came off for Gotou at the break for Gunma; Gamba kicked-off and looked like they wanted to give us more goals as Leandro slipped in down the left and fired a wicked ball across the penalty area but there were no takers – not even Kurata! Gunma kept passing the ball back to Kita in goal and forcing him to kick it away under pressure but they did win a corner at the expense of Fujiharu’s head as he took the cross squarely to the side of the face and had to go off for treatment but there was no threat for our 10 men from that corner. Following that, Kaji even tried to get on the score sheet but his volley was wide and he was offside but the football was fantastic.

Futagawa and PaulinhoUchida, who had been booked, came off for Myojin in the 55th minute who needed game time ahead of a potential Endo-and-Konno-less June if they go with Japan on their travels around the globe (please no!). Only a handful of minutes later and it was 4-1 with Paulinho again netting for us. Kurata had mis-controlled a pass and the defender came out to move forward but his touch was heavy. The ball ricocheted off Paulinho a couple of times but it eventually broke for him, allowing him to attack with Futagawa and Kurata against one defender. He picked out Futagawa who took a touch but he hit his shot directly at Kita but the ball landed to his feet and he squared the ball to Paulinho who finished off what he started as Kita was stranded, getting a tap-in from 9 yards.

There was no rest bite as it turned 5-1 just a minute later on the hour. Konno passed to Futagawa who took a touch to turn on the halfway line and he played in Kurata who held off his defender well, got into the box and fell over of the slippy surface. The move looked over there but he got back up quickly and flicked the ball onto his left foot and drilled the ball through Kita’s legs to get his desired brace; a well-deserved brace too! The knockout blows!

Aoki came off for Yokoyama for Thespa whilst Leandro had a shot deflected past the post with Kita well beaten. He should have scored again after some beautiful one-touch passing ended with him firing directly at Kita, who in all honesty kept the score down. It was rather a deflated Gunma by now as players got frustrated, kicking the ball away at one point which is hardly ever seen in Japan. Kaji tried his luck again after wonderful play by the front 4 but his shot was blocked; Leandro’s game came to an end as he earned a rest, giving his place up to Shota Kawanishi.

It was the visitors who had the best chances in the last 10 minutes, firstly as Gotou got in-behind but could only lift the ball over Fujigaya and his goal-frame whilst Yokoyama headed over from 8 yards. As for Gamba, Kurata was still working hard even as a striker as he came all the back into his own half to win the ball off a Gunma player whilst Abe had come on for Futagawa, as per tradition, in the 83rd minute. He supplied a delicious little cross for Kawanishi who came within inches of opening his account for the season in the 90th minute but the time and flown by and the game was won in (eventually) convincing fashion.

The most pleasing part of the match was the number of goals we scored and also how they were scored. The last time Gamba scored 5+ goals at home came against Consadole Sapporo in J1 last August and this was only the 2nd time this season that we have bagged 3+ goals at home. The forward 4 connected well with one-another as all the goals and assists (bar Kaji’s for Leandro) came from those 4. Additionally, we have a goal-scoring midfielder-turned-striker in Kurata whilst Paulinho, a striker-turned-midfielder, also bagged 2 goals. These 2 together lessen the burden on Leandro. Going the other way, Nishino made an error and at times we let Thespa keep the ball for too long but overall, there was still good pressure on the ball and we exploited the acres of space that Thespa left us. For the majority of the match, Konno and Nishino just had to stand back and admire; it would not have been surprising if they and Fujigaya were counted in the attendance, they were more spectators than players!

Shu Kurata

Man of the Match:
Just like last weekend, all of the players put in a great performance individually. Futagawa served up 3 assists whilst Leandro got 1 goal and 1 assist; additionally, Paulinho picked up his first 2 goals for the season. For once though, I agree with the TV – Shu Kurata was Man of the Match. Again, his link-up with Leandro was excellent but also with the other forward-thinking players as well as midfielders and Fujiharu, who always arrives from left-back to join in. He stated he wanted to score 2 goals against Thespa and he sure did! His hard work made both of the goals he scored and he was running until the very end. He said he will get a hat-trick against Ehime next week… I sure hope so! What else can I say that has not been said before? He played with the highest amount of class possible. Paulinho came close to being Man of the Match though, so keep up the hard work and keep proving me wrong!

Where it leaves both teams:
Gamba came into the match knowing that Vissel Kobe had already won 4-2 away to our next opponents Ehime FC, so great credit for the way we played as we consolidated 2nd place whilst keeping the pressure on the leaders. V-Varen Nagasaki slipped from 3rd to 6th after losing 1-0 at home to the inconsistent Kyoto Sanga, allowing JEF (1-0), Tochigi SC (4-1) and Fagiano Okayama (2-0) to move ahead of them, although JEF are 3 points behind us in 3rd and leading that pack. It was an extraordinary weekend overall in the J.League as there were 77 goals in the 20 games played, with 39 of them coming from J2 which saw the top-half teams dominate their lower-half cousins.

As for Gunma, they came to play football and were punished for it. They were pushed into the relegation play-off place in 21st place on goal difference after Giravanz Kitakyushu picked up a valuable point against fellow strugglers Yokohama FC whilst Gainare Tottori (0-6) and FC Gifu (1-4) were both smashed which may be the key if we look at goal difference come the end of the season. Their team is young and thin at the moment, so they will need great spirit and determination to force their way up the table.

Stats
Gamba Osaka 5-1 ThespaKusatsu Gunma

Photos taken from J’s goal. No copyright infringement intended. Originals here.

Match Preview – 19/05/2013 – J2: Section 15 – Gamba Osaka v ThespaKusatsu Gunma

With the Kobe defeat well behind us now, we invite lowly ThespaKusatsu Gunma to Banpaku for what should be one of those defensive displays that we have seen week-in, week-out at home. Nonetheless, Leandro and Kurata, along with the rest of the team, should be able to please the partisan crowd at this 16:00 kick-off local time.

Gamba Osaka PredictionGamba won their game last week 3-2 against Avispa Fukuoka on the road although the score only showed how good Avispa were at shooting from range. Positives for Gamba came in the form of firstly Leandro and Kurata, who linked up well and scored the 3 goals between themselves. Secondly, Paulinho relished his task on the left behind his fellow countryman and put in a stellar performance. Finally, Iwashita might be back on the bench for this game which would mean that only Akihiro Sato will be the only player left on the treatment table, as Myojin made a cameo appearance last weekend.

Thespa on the other hand come into this game in 20th place with just 10 points, 6 of those coming in the first 4 matches that saw the newly renamed team sit unbeaten until they hit 6 defeats in a row. This was followed by scoring 4 goals against Tokushima Vortis before which point they had only scored 3 goals and they backed that result up with a draw and 2 defeats. Worryingly for them, they have picked up just 3 points from a possible 8 games and have scored just 4 goals on the road, with their last away victory coming way back on 2nd September against Matsumoto Yamaga FC in a 2-0 win. This result was the last coming from an 8 match unbeaten run away from home split equally between victories and draws. Having finished in 17th place last season and having 12 points from 14 games but being able to score goals and get clean sheets more often, they certainly have gone backwards this season so far.

Looking at Gamba’s choices and as mentioned previously, there is almost a full roster to choose from. It would be a surprise if Hasegawa decided to mix things up with all the players who started last week deserving their spots for this match. We will need a bit of force going forward if we are going to beat a probable sitting-deep defence. Iwashita might make it back onto the bench but I would not see him being rushed back in, whilst maybe giving Myojin some time on the pitch could be a good idea as Endo and Konno will probably be away for a month with the Japan National Team (if he is picked, of course). Whatever the choices, I would give the same eleven another opportunity to strut their stuff.

As for Thespa, they somehow managed to only name 5 substitutes for their 2-1 defeat against Kyoto Sanga on Sunday but are tipped to make a handful of changes, notably from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-2-1 formation with a narrow-looking midfield, obviously hoping to congest the centre of the pitch. A change in goal with Kita in for Naito and in defence with Segawa out for Hwang Song-Su whilst Endo and Yokoyama are slated to be replaced by Hozaki and Kobayashi in midfield have been the earmarked alterations. With Masuda, Matsumoto and Eder injured, along with just 5 subs named last week, things already look so tough for the visitors.

Kyoto Sanga v ThespaKusatsu GunmaPaulinho had a great time in his first start of the season, so let’s see how he does this weekend. I have admittedly not been a big fan of Paulinho as he is often selfish without an end product and he has gone down in my estimations since he shaved off his Mohawk but with a disciplined and exciting performance in an unusual and more defensive position last time out (for a striker at least), he showed that he could do a good job whilst adding something to the team. I hope he continues to prove me wrong but I want to see him perform at a high level on a consistent basis. Things would be perfect and therefore topped-off if he just grew back that ridiculous hairstyle!

The match is going to be one of those again with Gamba having to be patient and calm on the ball whilst having a bit more of a threat and bite at the end of a move as we just about got past Gifu whilst Matsumoto fell to an own goal. I will still expect at least a 2-0 win for the home team and perhaps even more if things really get ticking over nicely. We need a convincing win at home to get the fans excited again and to get them back into their seats. I cannot see Gunma scoring at all and the earlier we score the better. We have to keep the pressure on Kobe to keep up with our results at least and with the easier opposition so far being an uphill struggle at home, we will want to make a big statement with a big performance. Let this not be a dream!