Dear oh dear oh dear. Another sluggish performance was swiftly jumped upon by the opposition as resurgent Tochigi SC made us pay for missed chances and mistakes in defence as our sticky patch continued. 10,687 people turned up to see the hosts continue their impressive form under their new manager whilst we missed our chance to return to the top of the table.
The hosts made a few of changes to the starting eleven that drew against Matsumoto Yamaga the weekend before. Goalkeeper Enomoto was dropped to the bench in place of Suzuki and we all remember how kind he was when we beat Tochigi earlier in the season. In defence, Akai took the place of Kan who was suspended for this match. The final change came in midfield as regular Takagi was also out of the squad and was replaced by Onodera. This meant that Owada and Sugimoto filled the empty spaces on the bench. Tochigi played their standard 4-2-3-1 system.
As for Gamba, Shu Kurata returned to the team at long last after over 3 months out injured and slotted right back into the starting eleven, albeit from the left of midfield. It felt like we reverted back to our own 4-2-3-1 system as Kawanishi got his first start of the season ahead of Rocha. Abe was also dropped to the bench (which I was happy about) as Omori came in on the right of midfield, at last! This sent Okazaki to the bench as well and as Kurata came back, Hoshihara was dropped from the bench to make way for Shu.
Tochigi SC XI – Suzuki, Akai, Cha, Nishioka, Santos, Hirose, Paulinho, Onodera, Kondo, Cristiano, Sabia.
Tochigi SC Subs – Enomoto, Owada, Yamagata, Sugimoto, Yuzawa, Kikuoka, Kukino.
Gamba Osaka XI – Fujigaya, Kaji, Niwa, Konno, Fujiharu, Uchida, Endo, Omori, Usami, Kurata, Kawanishi.
Gamba Osaka Subs – Kimura, Nishino, Abe, Takei, Okazaki, Rocha, Hirai.
The first 10 minutes were full of basically sparring between the two sides with Gamba, of course, holding onto possession for the majority of that time. But like in the last 6 away games, we conceded early on and it was Sabia who gave the hosts the lead in the 10th minute following a counter attack on the left side. The ball was switched to the right and passed to Cristiano whose tame shot was parried poorly by Fujigaya into the path of the other Brazilian who tapped in from a couple of yards. Daiki Niwa was also slacking off as he stood and watched Fujigaya parry the ball rather than being on his toes to get rid of any potential danger. Terrible by the pair of them…
The hosts should have been 2 goals to the good just six minutes later as Kondo put in an excellent cross from the wing that was put in the corridor of doubt between the defenders and goalkeeper that just evaded the outstretched foot of Sabia.
Going the other way, Tochigi set up with tight defensive lines that prevented us from getting close to their goal. Our passes were misplaced in the final third and this meant that Kaji ended up with the first yellow card of the game after he fouled Santos who was shepherding the ball out for a goal kick in the 26th minute. Kurata showed the first signs of an attacking threat by sliding a lovely ball down the side of the defence which Usami latched onto but his shot was pushed wide by Suzuki, who did well to hold onto a 30 yard drive from Omori moments later. Kawanishi then set-up Usami whose drive went straight at Suzuki in goal but it only felt like a matter of time before we would score.
So Usami went and made up for his misses but netting the equaliser. Shu Kurata drifted from the left to the centre of the pitch, took a couple of touches before sliding a lovely pass to Usami on the edge of the box who took a touch before firing into the far corner. Massive credit to Shota Kawanishi for making an excellent run across the box that created the space for Usami. An excellent goal which signalled the return of the highly needed Shu Kurata. Game on but we needed to take the next goal.
Before half time, Usami danced around the defence before squaring to Kawanishi but the defence held strong whilst Kawanishi had a decent chance to get a goal as Uchida crossed from the left but he could only head straight at Suzuki. Although we were pushing to take the lead, Tochigi held firm and we went into the break with our sights set high for the second half as we looked to be getting a hold of the game and I was sure we would continue to batter Tochigi in the second half.
Yet the second half could not have started any worse. After Omori gave a free kick away on the Tochigi left, Santos took it quickly to Sabia who had peeled off the sleeping Niwa and he headed home from 8 yards, his header going right above Fujigaya who could not keep it out. Niwa was once again the culprit in defence and again underlines why he should not be a Gamba player. 46 minutes gone and Tochigi back in the lead with all our hard work undone early on again.
We did react fairly well to going behind as Usami rattled the bar from 20 yards, centrally. Tochigi took off Onodera for Kikuoka a few minutes later whilst Usami won a free kick which was excellently sent in by Endo with no-one attacking the set-piece which resulted in Kukioka ending the counter attack by firing wide of goal. On the hour mark, Hirose clipped the top of the bar after being given acres of space to take aim. The hosts were playing on the counter attack better now and it was always going to be a massive danger.
Kenta Hasegawa then made two changes, bringing on Rocha and Abe for Kawanishi and Kurata. The two going off did a decent job especially Kurata as he made an assist on his return whilst Kawanishi did do well but needed a cutting edge. I was disappointed that Abe was on but he did net the equaliser in the 67th minute after Omori drove into the box on the left and passed the ball to Endo who tapped the ball back to the midfielder who fired into the far corner of the goal. It was excellent play by Omori there, taking on three Tochigi players by himself and being extremely positive, whilst Abe finished it well. Now you would think we would push on and get the win from this position.
Omori was on fire as he played in Usami just a moment later but the latter once again wasted another great opportunity by firing right at Suzuki when through on goal. Heading into the last 10 minutes and Konno was booked for a late foul whilst Tochigi took off Hirose and Kondo for Kukino and Yuzawa to freshen up the midfield. Yet we found ourselves 3-2 down in the 81st minute… Uchida’s poor cross-field ball was snuffed out and let Tochigi go on the counter attack down the right. Kukino crossed towards the penalty spot and Cristiano met the ball with his right foot ahead of Konno. The shot was hit into the ground and over the diving Fujigaya…
Yet we should have made it 3-3 just 2 minutes later as Usami waltzed into the penalty area and fed Omori and Rocha but both got in each other’s way and somehow managed to miss the target with Tochigi scrambling the ball off the line. Okazaki came on for the disappointing Uchida but Tochigi made it 4-2 in the 87th minute through substitute Kukino. Cristiano picked up the ball on the edge of the box and played a square pass to Kukino who easily dummied past Kaji to the left and he fired across goal and through Niwa’s legs, who had put in a half-hearted block, to put it into the far corner and make the game safe.
The result was dreadful, the attacking play decent but the defensive play simply terrible. The sooner we get Nishino back in defence the better! Although we should be automatically promoted, these last few games should be telling Kenta Hasegawa who we need to get rid of and where we need to strengthen. Not looking at anyone in particular, am I Niwa?
Man of the Match:
For Gamba, Kotaro Omori was the stand-out player in an otherwise disappointing game as he was always positive and continued to attack his defender like a real winger (cough cough Abe and Okazaki). Without a doubt though, it was Cristiano who ran the show for the hosts. Not only did he score, but he also assisted 2 of the home side’s goals and was an instrumental part in breaking us down via the counter attack. He used the ball wisely and calmly which allowed his team to take apart our awful defence. He looked like a man full of confidence in his own abilities and was the reason why his team won the game emphatically.
Where it leaves both teams:
Despite this heavy defeat, we are lucky that we are still just 1 point behind Vissel Kobe as the leaders also lost on the road, this time by a 2-1 score line against JEF United Chiba. With our defeat, Kyoto Sanga closed the gap from 3rd to us to 9 points with their fifth straight win after taking down Gainare Tottori 1-0. Tokushima Vortis drew 0-0 away to Miyo HollyHock to stay in 4th on 60 points whilst JEF moved up to 5th after beating Vissel, now on 58 points. V-Varen Nagasaki drew 1-1 with Fagiano Okayama and are now only 3 points ahead of Matsumoto Yamaga in 7th with Okayama 2 points back in 8th. Tochigi sit in 12th, 7 points away from the play-offs and it would take something close to a miracle for them to make them now but they will want to end the season on a high and have something to look forward to next season.
Photo taken from J’s Goal. No copyright infringement intended. Original here.