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 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.
Taking 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.
With 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.