For the first time since 24th September 2011, we lost at home without scoring a goal as Ehime FC claimed an unlikely win to make it 2 defeats in 3 at home, meaning that we fell from 1st place since taking it 4 months against our guests for the day. The biggest crowd of the round (12,671 people) saw this abysmal performance that deserved nothing less than 0 points.
Kenta Hasegawa was forced into one change from the team that drew 2-2 with Matsumoto Yamaga FC the weekend before, as Takahiro Futagawa picked up an injury during the course of the week, meaning that Kenya Okazaki was brought into the starting eleven which disappointed me as I wanted to see Kotaro Omori back in the starting eleven. On the bench, Takuya Takei and Shoki Hirai came in to cover for Futagawa and Paulinho, the latter picking up several small injuries that have added to his frustration.
As for the visitors, they brought in Alair into the back 3 in place of Han whilst dropping Mihara to the bench, as well as Kawahara out of the team due to suspension, along with Shigematsu, to bring in Azuma, Ishii and Osmar as their main attacking threat. The spaces vacated on the bench were covered by Kobara and Watanabe K. They set up to stay narrow and compact, a tactic that they hoped would frustrate the hell out of us.
Gamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Niwa, Konno, Fujiharu, Uchida, Endo, Abe, Okazaki, Rocha, Usami.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Hoshihara, Nishino, Omori, Takei, Hirai, Kawanishi.
Ehime FC XI – Akimoto, Alair, Sonoda, Urata, Kuroki, Yoshimura, Murakami, Azuma, Kato, Ishii, Osmar.
Ehime FC Subs – Kaneda, Mihara, Kobara, Watanabe K, Matsumoto, Fuji, Watanabe R.
Azuma for Ehime had the first decent chance of the match in the 3rd minute as he collected the ball on the left of the box and fired a snap-shot towards goal which Fujigaya did well to stop as the attempt was going into the top corner of his goal. The defence was all over the place for that moment and it did not bode well for the rest of the game. Going forward was also cause for concern as we were getting into good areas but the final cross was poor as Ehime sat back and soaked up the pressure.
The best chance of the game for us came in the 11th minute as Usami and Okazaki combined to set-up Rocha and got him through on goal after he ended up on the left. With only Akimoto to beat in goal, he managed to fire it right at the keeper and spur a golden opportunity. Despite us taking control of the possession for the entire half, it was a half full of frustration with our inability to break down a stubborn Ehime rear-guard whilst we looked lethargic and sloppy on the ball. We made it too comfortable for the visitors. When we did in finally break the back line once more in the 40th minute, Usami slid it across goal but no-one attacked it and the defensive confusion just about prevented conceding the opening goal of the game.
The players who were especially not pulling their weight were Okazaki, Abe and Rocha. The two wide players were clueless to how they should break down the defence and often narrowed the game instead of stretching it whilst it has been noted by myself before that Rocha is simply not a hard worker so when games like this one comes along, he finds it very difficult to make an impression. It shows in the stats: he has scored 2 goals in 5 home games whilst he has netted 7 times in 5 away games. Away from home, he is afforded more space and time (just like the rest of the team) and thrives on it. It is not the case at Banpaku and this is where Akihiro Sato, Shu Kurata and Takahiro Futagawa would have been perfect had they not been injured.
So going into the second half, we needed to see some energy, a high tempo and the desire to pin back the opposition until we broke the deadlock. It simply did not happen. Rather, it was Ehime who had the first good chance of the half as Kato fired a low shot from the edge of the area that Fujigaya did well to stop. The passing errors continued from us but Rocha finally got involved and fired a shot across goal that Akimoto pushed away but only onto Abe, who could not react quickly enough to poke the ball home from 6 yards. A bit unfortunate there but we were not deserving of any luck.
As I was begging for changes, Ishii was booked for a late foul on Usami on the hour mark and finally a change did come, but it was Hirai on for Okazaki. With us not using the width, surely Omori would have been the right choice? I was proven correct later on, but not before Ehime took the lead. The visitors won a free kick centrally, slightly to the left, around 35 yards from goal. The free kick was sent to the far post where Alair found himself unmarked and headed in down low from 6 yards out as the ball had taken Fujigaya out of play. He was being marked by Uchida but he had his hand up for offside whilst Rocha was not following in either. It turned out that Alair was not offside at all and highlighted the terrible choices from the both of them, meaning we had it all to do from here on out. 22 minutes left, could we get back into it?
Rocha was taken off for Kawanishi (still no width) but Ehime had their tail up and Kato had another shot stopped by Fujigaya in a period where we looked like going 2-0 down. Finally Omori was brought on for Uchida instead of Abe and he was absolutely brilliant in the 14 minutes plus stoppage time that he was given. Kaji almost provided the most unlikely of equalisers, as his cross from the right caught out Akimoto who may have got fingertips on the ball as it thrashed against the underside of the bar and away to safety. Omori continued to give chances to his team mates but they seemed to rush and the 3 points went back to Shikoku.
Kenta Hasegawa needs to take some of the blame as his substitutions were poor and not productive but the players really seem to have relaxed in recent times to the point where you even doubt if the good Gamba will turn up any more. We have not been hitting the target enough in games and have wasted good opportunities but at the same time, we should not be giving away the goals we have. For the last 8 games, we need to switch on and do that job right as the results and some performances have not been good enough.
Where it leaves both teams:
We succumbed to 2nd place against the team that we beat to earn 1st place 4 months ago, as Vissel Kobe took a 1-1 draw with Mito HollyHock at home to go ahead by 1 point. We are now clear of Kyoto Sanga in 3rd by 11 points but will be looking to rectify losing a 7 point lead at the top of the table. Sanga beat V-Varen Nagasaki 2-0 to cement 3rd place, whilst Tokushima Vortis won 2-1 in their match to secure 4th, 1 point back. JEF United lost their 3rd match in a row and stay 6th after losing to play-off chasers Fagiano Okayama, who now sit in 7th place and are just 4 points behind JEF. Okayama lead a group of 4 teams on 51 points and the play-off hunt is getting hotter and hotter every week.
It was a day of wins for teams at the bottom though as 4 of the 7 teams from the bottom 9 who played won. Ehime therefore stay 17th but seem to be clear of relegation for now, as they are 9 points of FC Gifu who did not play this weekend. They will be disappointed not to have moved a place or two up the table but after earning and winning such a massive 3 points, I am sure they will not mind too much.