The start of June could not have been any better without Endo and Konno as their replacements, along with the rest of the team, strolled to a 3-0 home win against play-off contenders Tochigi SC in front of 12,633 people at Banpaku. The win kept us top, still on goal difference, but the way in which we attained victory will give us a positive outlook for the rest of the month.
The main changes for Gamba came due to the international call-ups for Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno. This of course meant that Akira Kaji took the captain’s armband but the bigger news was seeing who would replace the international players. Daiki Niwa was able to get another chance at the heart of defence as it seems like Keisuke Iwashita has not been able to recover from his injury. The bigger decision was to play Kenya Okazaki next to Tatsuya Uchida in the centre of midfield over the experienced legs of Tomokazu Myojin. This meant that it was Okazaki’s very first start as a professional player and a big call to put two young guns together in the heart of the team. It was a bold move but as I have said before, we want young players, so no complaints! These changes allowed Takuya Takei and Shoki Hirai to get back onto the bench. The final change to the starting eleven came in the shape of Akihiro Ienaga, who impressed after coming on last weekend for Paulinho, and it was the Brazilian that made way.
As for the visitors, their own Paulinho, who is also their captain, was unavailable for the match and so Nishioka took his spot in the centre of midfield. This was to prove a costly loss to the team without a battler in midfield in their standard 4-4-2 system. Otherwise, they came unchanged from their draw with Yokohama FC the weekend beforehand.
Gamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Nishino, Niwa, Fujiharu, Ienaga, Okazaki, Uchida, Futagawa, Kurata, Leandro.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Oh J.S., Abe, Myojin, Takei, Paulinho, Hirai.
Tochigi SC XI – Enomoto, Yamagata, Owada, Toma, Kan, Cristiano, Cha, Nishioka, Sugimoto, Hirose, Kondo.
Tochigi SC Subs – Shibasaki, Akai, Nakano, Kikuoka, Santos, Katsumata, Kukino.
The visitors got the match underway with the first 5 minutes an open affair without either team making an impact going forward. In the 6th minute, the first real chance was created as Cristiano was well pressured into handing the ball over and the ball found its way to Kaji, who played a simple pass to Ienaga as continued his run down the touchline, whilst Ienaga passed back to Leandro on the half way line to cut a ball through the defence to Kaji. He made his way through two challenges and got to the by-line, picked his head up and spotted Kurata from 10 yards, but the shot was blazed over the bar.
Nevertheless, this was just a warning sign that Gamba were starting to warm up and Leandro bagged the first goal of the match in the 10th minute to make it 1-0 to the hosts. Tochigi were happy to pass the ball around the back throughout the match but Shu Kurata was adamant on pressing them and he forced it back to Enomoto in goal and he had to rush the resulting kick. The ball was superbly intercepted by Uchida one the stretch as he beat his marker to the ball and put it into Leandro’s path. He was unmarked as the centre-backs had drifted to the sides after the ball went to Enomoto and so the Brazilian was through on goal and dinked the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper from 16 yards to get an easy goal that was poor defensively speaking but also fantastic by Kurata and Uchida. This was just the start of Tochigi’s horrible defence which was surprising given that they had only conceded 12 goals in 16 games before this match.
They continued to play their passing-it-around-the-back style which put Enomoto under a lot of pressure thanks to the pressing of Leandro and Kurata, who were well backed-up by Uchida and Okazaki. It was Uchida who had the next good opportunity as he strolled forward unchallenged in midfield and drilled a shot from 25-30 yards that went just over Enomoto’s bar. Just 2 minutes later, Niwa did superbly in defence, being calm and cool to get us going to the counter attack down the left through Fujiharu to pass forward to Leandro. He took a touch to control the ball, flicked it onto his right foot and sent a cross to the back post to an unmarked Ienaga who headed straight at Enomoto from 6 yards.
It was when Tochigi went forward for the first time that they conceded again. Niwa gave away a free kick on the right and it was passed short to gain a corner for the visitors. It was not dealt properly by the defence but the Tochigi attacker at the back post went too far and flicked out his right foot which sent the ball towards the middle of the box where Niwa went for safety first as he hoofed the ball forwards. Tochigi had left no defenders back on the halfway line and Kurata pressed the defender who was rushing back to his own goal. As the ball bounced, the defender got under the ball and headed it backwards and into the path of Fujiharu, who had absolutely bolted forward to support Kurata. He controlled the ball with his head and put it onto his left foot and again lobbed the ball over Enomoto who was unsure on what to do. The effort from 21 yards sailed over his head and into the back of the net. Superb effort to get the goal by himself and Kurata and a striker’s finish to top it all off! Fujiharu’s first goal of the season, first goal at Banpaku and first goal not in the month of October. What a player, and what stamina and effort!
The next 20 minutes had very little action in it as Gamba controlled the midfield through Uchida and Okazaki and it was a simple case of us pressing Tochigi whilst they let us play. They had no threat going forward and seemed lost without captain Paulinho. It seems like they lack quality in depth whilst Gamba can deal with the losses of their biggest players. Uchida stood out the most as he had really made that midfield position his own, meaning Myojin cannot even get a sniff.
Tochigi’s first chance came in the 43rd minute as Fujigaya was forced into a simple save at his near post down low thanks to a shot by Hirose. Again, Gamba got forward on the counter attack and this time through Okazaki, who rode a challenge in the midfield to burst into the Tochigi half not 20 seconds after Hirose’s shot. Their midfield was empty and it allowed Okazaki, Leandro and Kurata to take on 2 defenders. He disguised his pass left to Leandro at it seemed for the world that he would play to Kurata to his right. The Brazilian nonetheless took a touch to control and confront his defender, he dummied a shot which threw off the defender and this gave the Brazilian the space to curl a powerful shot past the again helpless Enomoto and into the top corner, rounding off a spectacular half of clinical attacking play against the 5th placed team without a strong midfield. Oh, and cue Leandro’s smile. Kenta Hasegawa too was delighted with each goal, judging by his fist-pumping reactions.
There needed to be some sort of reaction from Tochigi and they gave us one. Nishioka and Sugimoto, central midfielder and left midfielder respectively, made way for former Japan international Santos and forward Kukino. Santos’ experience gave them a bit more stability in defence but neither of the subs allowed them to think about more attacking because they simply lacked the quality to do so. They did have the first shot of the half, albeit from 25 yards through Kondo, as Fujigaya claimed some catching practice.
Leandro was drifting a lot more in this match as to make space for the other attack-minded players as Tochigi were not sure on what to do. He did this in the 48th minute, allowing Fujiharu to get forward but he was flagged offside. Niwa and Futagawa did superbly well to roll tackles/fouls to earn a corner, which ultimately came to nothing. Ienaga was also seen chasing a long ball, albeit to fire wide and rather selfishly so as he had options, but his work ethic was great. In the 55th minute, Leandro came deep which allowed Uchida to burst past him to join Kurata up top. The Brazilian passed to Ienaga who had come in from the right and he played in Uchida directly in front of him – unfortunately, his shot was parried wide by Enomoto with Kurata just unable to get his foot on the ball at the back post. The movement was however excellent and exciting.
In the 58th minute, Leandro was drifting again as Uchida passed square deep in his own half to Futagawa who played a long ball over the Tochigi defence for Leandro down the left after the defender could not head clear. He nonchalantly move towards the box and played a delicious ball across the 6 yard box to Kurata who just about got his foot to the ball on the stretch but his effort unfortunately came off the post. Given his performance, he certainly deserved more.
The next 10 minutes were quite quiet in terms of action, but Futagawa and Okazaki were both replaced for Paulinho and Myojin. It would have been nice to see Abe, Hirai or Takei get some time instead of the older guys but Myojin needs to be up to scratch. Okazaki deservedly got a huge round of applause and can be confident that he will start the next game against Kitakyushu, whilst Futagawa was his usual tidy and calm self.
Tochigi had the majority of chances in the next 10 minutes or so from the 70th minute as they won a corner which was headed back to Cristiano, the taker, by Myojin, and he whipped it onto Kondo’s unmarked head but he put it well over. It was good here to see Niwa not standing for that and asking questions of his fellow defenders. Our simply awesome pressure on Tochigi did make us one more great chance as Ienaga stormed forward and passed from the left to Paulinho in the middle who played a delightful pass back to Ienaga who continued his run and he got the ball at an acute angle from 8 yards. He could have put the ball through Enomoto’s legs but instead opted to play towards Kurata at the back post, but our number 6 was sufficiently wrestled which allowed the ball to go away from his path.
Cristiano forced Fujigaya into a low save in the 76th minute from 30 yards whilst Katsumata came on for Hirose who had an ineffective match. Kaji was booked after mis-controlling the ball and fouling his man, whilst Takei got 5 minutes or so as he came on for the impressive Akihiro Ienaga who would have been disappointed that he had not scored. The changes did not stop our work rate neither did it stop Paulinho going for a traditional 20 yard shot that was comfortable for Enomoto. It was the Brazilians who combined for the final chance of the game as Leandro flicked a pass over the defender to Paulinho, who strode into the box and going down under a challenge from a guilty-looking Enomoto, but it was the Brazilian who was penalised for diving and consequently booked. He did not complain but we will never know if it was a legitimate shout for a PK as there was no replay.
Nevertheless, it would have only added another cherry to the cake for this performance. Leandro could have got his second hat-trick of the season if it was given. Yet, without Endo and Konno we looked comfortable and the young players are getting better and better every time they get a chance to play. The regulars showed their usual quality and regardless of Tochigi’s lack of quality, we put them to the sword and showed them what they are lacking. Everyone stepped up when fans might be worried that we could struggle without the international representatives like last time, but the energy that Hasegawa wanted in midfield made all the difference. Comparing Uchida and Okazaki to Myojin and Takei, they lack the experience but they have a greater effect on the game, with both nailing assists for the day. If they (and the rest of the team) keep playing like this, Endo and Konno will have a job on their hands when they get back. The three changes to the starting eleven did not stop our fluid play which indicates that everyone is on the same wavelength.
Man of the Match:
As with recent times, there are a whole bunch of players who could be named Man of the Match. Leandro scored 2 goals and took his chances well, Shu Kurata was forever running and working hard like we expect, Kenya Okazaki had a stellar first start as a professional as he replaced Endo to the point where you did not miss the captain, whilst Hiroki Fujiharu was an ace as always. Yet for me, Tatsuya Uchida was the one who controlled the match and really filled Endo’s boots. He had a tough time against Vissel Kobe but since then, he has grown as a player and in this match, he was the heartbeat of the team and squeezed Tochigi in midfield. He did the job Endo does and it felt like there was nothing he could not do. He was just brilliant and his combination with Okazaki, with their energy in bundles, allowed Gamba to beat a seemingly difficult opponent at ease. He has come a long way since his nervy start against Matsumoto Yamaga and it is good to see him play with confidence and looking positive in his overall play.
Where it leaves both teams:
With the win, we stay top of the league but with our goal-difference being extended as Vissel Kobe managed to win 2-0 over Mito Hollyhock earlier in the day. V-Varen Nagasaki also kept the gap to the top 2 to just 4 points as they scored in the 92nd minute against Thespa to win their game 2-1. Kyoto Sanga did not play until Monday but still held onto 4th place despite losing 2-1 at home to our next opponents Giravanz Kitakyushu who had not won in 10 games. Tochigi still managed to hold onto 5th even with this defeat as JEF also lost for the 2nd match in a row as Montedio Yamagata convincingly beat their hosts 3-1 at the Fukuda Denshi Arena. The backlog of teams vying for a play-off place continues as Okayama, Verdy, Fukuoka and Yamagata all still in within a win of 6th, given that the teams in the bottom half of the top 6 all managed to lose.