Wooooooohooooooooooo!!! Gamba defeated our Kansai rivals Vissel Kobe 3-2 in an absolutely thrilling game which saw both teams go hell and leather for the 3 points in front of 18,193 people in what was our biggest crowd at Banpaku this season. A returnee stole the show for the hosts whilst my final in-person match in Japan was a wonderful, nervy but overall fitting way to bow out of things!
After drawing 1-1 with Giravanz Kitakyushu last weekend, Kenta Hasegawa decided to ring the changes as 5 modifications to the starting line-up were made. In defence, Akira Kaji returned for Oh Jae-Suk after serving his one match suspension for picking up 4 yellow cards for the season. In midfield, Tomokazu Myojin, Takahiro Futagawa and Kotaro Omori all traded places with Paulinho, Kenya Okazaki and Hiroyuki Abe. Omori picked up his first ever start in what was a big call by Kenta Hasegawa, as was including the fading legs of Myojin. All these changes meant that Yasuhito Endo was given a forward-thinking role in-behind the main striker, who was none other than Takashi Usami, picking up where he left off 2 years ago by returning to play against Vissel Kobe. Last time out, it finished 3-2 to Gamba on Usami’s final match. Would things be the same on his return?
Usami’s inclusion to the starting eleven and Adi Rocha’s inclusion on the bench kicked-out Shota Kawanishi and Shoki Hirai from the entire squad, whilst the other 4 players who were not starting this week but did last week all made the bench. Sadly, no place for Takaharu Nishino once again.
As for Vissel, they kept with the same starting eleven that scrapped past Kataller Toyama the weekend before and their bench included attacking options all over. Although both teams were playing a 4-2-3-1 formation that would switch to 4-4-1-1 when defending, the attacking threats were very apparent from the word go and the winner would be the team that took its chances when they arrived.
Gamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Iwashita, Niwa, Fujiharu, Myojin, Konno, Omori, Endo, Futagawa, Usami.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Oh J.S., Abe, Okazaki, Uchida, Rocha, Paulinho.
Vissel Kobe XI – Tokushige, Okui, Lee, Iwanami, Hayashi, Ogawa, Hashimoto, Estiven, Mazinho, Popo, Tokura.
Vissel Kobe Subs – Kishi, Kim, Tanaka, Mihara, Tashiro, Yoshida, Mogi.
The emphasis for this match was to start well and show signs that we could threaten Vissel and for the first few minutes, we practically controlled possession. Not good enough as Vissel took the lead on exactly the 5th minute thanks to an absolute pile driver by Popo. Mazinho sent in a corner from the left but it was flicked away by Iwashita to the edge of the area where former Gamba player Hideo Hashimoto slightly flicked the ball into the path of Popo who absolutely belted a low shot from 25 yards through a huge crowd of players and past the helpless Fujigaya who had no chance in saving it. What a start for Vissel, what a blow for us. I was fearing the worst.
Not for long though! We replied just 2 minutes later to make it 1-1 through who else but Takashi Usami. We kept possession well and worked our way through the Vissel defence. Usami played a quick pass to Omori who immediately passed to Endo slightly to the left. He tried to play a pass through to either of those two or Futagawa but it was blocked. Fortunately, the ball came back to him and he passed to Omori, this time on the right side of the box and he played a lovely pass to Futagawa in the box who immediately knocked it back to Endo who was running into the area. He saw a tackle coming and let the ball run through his legs to Usami, who took 2 touches before sliding the ball home into the bottom corner, giving Tokushige no chance. What a way to reply! The football was excellent, there was speed and Vissel were undone so easily. Game on! A sense of relief right there.
But to think that it would be all good from here would have been massively wishful thinking. The game was very tight but we controlled the possession and there were no real threats from Vissel. In a first half of few chances, the next one game in the 12th minute as Iwashita played a lovely ball over the top for Usami to chase down the right. He played a simple pass to Kaji who was tackled but the ball fell to Konno on the edge of the penalty area but his shot was superbly deflected high and wide by Hashimoto.
We had another good chance in the 27th minute as Omori dropped deep centrally and played a superb pass to Kaji down the right. He drilled a cross into the area and after some less-than-convincing defending, the ball came to Konno on the far left but his shot was blocked and was eventually picked up by Tokushige.
I definitely felt we are the better side but we needed to make it count before half time. My wishes were heard by the players as Takashi Usami made it 2-1! Yasuhito Endo strolled over to take a corner from the left side in the 39th minute; he sent his cross to the back post towards Keisuke Iwashita who had pulled away from the main pack. He beat Okui to the ball and headed a controlled pass back across the box to Usami, unmarked, who instinctively turned the ball in from 4 yards with 4 players, including the Vissel keeper, on the line. Shocking defending there but nothing more than we deserved. ♪ Oh Usami Takashi ♪
Mazinho did have a half chance to level just before the break in the 43rd minute as he easily turned Omori in midfield following a Vissel corner and he played a one-two before lashing a powerful shot well wide of the far post with Fujigaya more than likely having it covered if it was on target. Half time arrived and I was delighted with how we had played and controlled the match but with that additional bite up front. I felt we needed one more goal if we were to decisively not lose.
Vissel definitely needed to make a change as they took of Ken Tokura and brought on Tashiro. It did not change the tide of the game though as we made it 3-1 just 9 minutes into the second half thanks to Yasuhito Endo. Konno started the play off in his own half, turning well under pressure to play a quick one-two with Iwashita before playing the ball wide to Fujiharu. He then played a quick one-two with Usami, who dragged Okui out of position, which allowed Fujiharu to attack the open space on the left. But not for long though as he spotted Endo running down the middle unmarked with Iwanami caught unawares. His pin-point cross found Yatto and he headed back across goal from 12 yards and his attempt somehow managed to beat Tokushige who should have done better, but we were 3-1 up as the ball squirmed past the keeper’s hand and into the bottom corner. I hugged and grabbed anyone I could and could not believe how easy it was. Vissel were simply too open and we used speed and precision to carve them open once more. Kenta Hasegawa’s jump in the air said it all!
Yet we let Vissel back into the game immediately and it was Tashiro with the 2nd goal for the visitors. Kobe managed to get the ball all the way across to the left but Hayashi’s cross was deflected only into the path of Mazinho played it back to Hayashi in space. He was given too much time and was able to cross directly onto the head of Tashiro who had left Niwa unawares as he drifted onto Fujiharu who had no chance in getting back to it and the sub nodded easily past Fujigaya to get the game back on. Niwa is certainly the weakest link in the back 4 and the sooner Nishino gets back in, the better!
Yet Omori almost restored the 2 goal lead in the 57th minute as he dummied and came inside from the right and let a cracker of a shot go from around 25 yards but the shot went inches wide of the left post with Tokushige beaten all ends up. Just 7 minutes later and Popo wasted the best chance Vissel got to equalise. They broke from defence down the left and Ogawa was covered well by Kaji but Niwa decided to leave his centre-back position to leave Fujiharu alone with Popo and a man coming in behind him. Popo controlled the ball and caught Fujiharu unbalanced but his shot from 17 yards went miles over. Niwa, Niwa, Niwa…
Before and after that action, we made subs as Futagawa and Omori were taken off for Okazaki and Abe respectively as Hasegawa was brave and bold to let 2 youngsters take on the mantle of defending the lead, whilst Mogi came on for Hayashi as Vissel searched for the equaliser. But it was Hiroyuki Abe who should have sealed all 3 points 87th minute, but only after Mazinho had another fizzer fly just past the post. Fujiharu cleared after a Vissel free kick and Okazaki chased and beat his man and attacked with Usami making a run to draw away Estiven from Abe who joined the attack from midfield. He took a touch and drilled his shot past Tokushige… and the far post. Inches!
Usami was replaced by the brilliant Tatsuya Uchida who cemented our defensive wall which was not beaten in the final minutes of the match. The final whistle went and hugs, high fives and more hugs were free to anyone! I was caught on TV fist pumping and the win was absolutely massive and the feeling was brilliant. He had come into the game wounded but had left it the proud and decisive J2 leaders. 1 year since a defeat at home in any competition. Thanks, Vissel!
Man of the Match:
Well well well, several players really impressed me and I will have to pick 2 players because their contributions were priceless. Nevertheless, I want to say that Akira Kaji and Hiroki Fujiharu were excellent at the back and Keisuke Iwashita was definitely in control of the erratic Daiki Niwa. Konno was the heart of the defensive midfield pairing whilst Kotaro Omori was wonderful in attack and in defence on his first start and he did what we missed against JEF. Yet Yasuhito Endo and Takashi Usami had the biggest impact on the match with their goals and influence on the goals. Yatto was superb in the advanced role and definitely caused so many problems and showed his intelligence to leave the ball for the first goal, precision to find Iwashita to knock down to Usami for the second and then to storm forward and net the eventual winner. As for Usami, he had 2 chances and netted the both like a proper striker and returned home with a bang. He also linked very well with the rest of the players and had a hand in the third goal, playing a nice one-two with Fujiharu. お帰りなさい、貴史！
Where it leaves both teams:
The victory gives us a 3 point gap to Vissel at the top of the table as they lost their 2nd game on the road in a row. That was also Vissel’s 5th defeat of the season and are on 50 points compared to our 53 and we have a better goal difference by +10. Vissel will be extremely nervous looking behind them as JEF United took 3rd place after winning 1-0 over Ehime FC which took them to their sixth win in a row and are now 3 points behind Kobe. V-Varen Nagasaki lost out as they dropped to 4th after drawing 1-1 to Kataller Toyama, with Kyoto Sanga replicating that result at Kitakyushu. Avispa Fukuoka kept 6th place as they beat FC Gifu 2-0 but are closely followed by Tokushima Vortis who won 4-1 away to Gunma and are 2 points behind Fukuoka. Fagiano Okayama also won (not a draw!) to stay within 3 points of Avispa whilst Consadole Sapporo and Tochigi SC, as well as our next opponents Tokyo Verdy, all sit on 35 points. Tochigi have not won a match in 7 games and are on a massive slide.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha… Vissel Kobe.