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.
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.
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.
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!
The 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:
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!