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