We made another massive statement concerning our revival during mid-season as we battered Hanshin rivals Vissel Kobe at the Noevir Stadium in front of a strong crowd of 18,012. A double of doubles and a golazo, not to mention an inspired goalkeeping performance, stole away the massively deserved 3 points.
Kenta Hasegawa decided to stick with the same team that dominated Shimizu S-Pulse in mid-week which meant that Shu Kurata could only make the bench as Patric deservedly started up front along side “Kobe Killer” Takashi Usami. The only other player to come onto the bench was Tomokazu Myojin, the veteran taking the place of Kenya Okazaki whilst it was the confidence-less Akihiro Sato who was dropped from the squad for Kurata.
This game was going to test how much we had really grown since the World Cup break ended with Kobe sitting in a comfortable 6th place but coming into the game in poor form. It would also show us whether we could look up the table from here on out instead of looking down.
Both teams started open and looking for an early goal to get them going, Usami going closest for us following a neat lay-off from Patric whilst Endo got caught on the ball and Pedro Junior almost made him pay for that mistake but he dragged his effort just wide. Then Ogawa let fly from an angle well out and just put his effort wide. Usami showed them how it was done as Abe passed to him on the edge of the box, taking a couple of touches before firing low and hard, off the near post and in. Their keeper was done by the pace of the effort and the Kobe Killer wheeled away in delight – another great start for us.
The referee gave Vissel a way back into the game as Pedro Junior broke in the box and went to cross but his effort struck the hand of Nishino who was just a few yards away and did not make a DELIBERATE move to block the ball. Only the referee thought it was a penalty and thus gave it, allowing Marquinhos to equalise although Higashiguchi guessed the right way.
We could have been forgiven for feeling sorry for ourselves but our improvement in mentality showed as we got back ahead just six minutes later and it was Usami again who found the back of the net. Endo was pulled down by Simplicio in a good position to cross from left-centre which he did, his free kick aimed to Nishino who was beaten to the header by his marker but with Yamamoto rushing out, the header came to a free Usami at the back post who made not mistake in putting us level. Kudos to Nishino for his role in getting us ahead after the penalty call.
Things were heating up and Pedro Junior kicked out at Oh Jae-Suk, luckily avoiding a red and taking just a yellow as our players descended upon him in anger. Omori picked up a seemingly nothing knock on his foot but he had to be taken off for Kurata just after the half hour mark. Pedro Junior was in on goal but Higashiguchi came out to meet him and push the ball away with his foot – more to come of that top goalkeeping, whilst Kurata, Abe and Patric somehow failed to make it 3-1 after the former broke into the area.
Patric made it count the next time round though as Simplicio again conceded a free kick in a good position and Endo put the cross right on the money with Patric free to head home into an empty net as Yamamoto again came rushing out, getting nowhere near the cross. Patric was probably marginally offside but it was a tight call and nothing more than we deserved. We eased into the half-time break with our 2 goal lead intact.
It was a question of staying tight and countering efficiently for the second half, following on from the first half. We started brighter with efforts from Patric and Usami who were combining excellently again whilst Kurata dummied and fired just wide 5 minutes later. Patric then hit the near post side-netting after superbly breaking down the right. It was then Kobe’s turn to attack as Higashiguchi made a top save from a free kick then closed down Ogawa as he bared down on goal. He then made a world class save from Marquinhos who fired an effort at the near post but Higashiguchi just managed to get fingers on the shot to push it onto the post – really was incredible.
After sustaining the pressure, Patric failed to play Usami in for a simple 4-1 but the former headed home from the resulting corner as Endo again picked him out. Patric was completely unmarked and hardly moved as he powered his effort into the opposite corner to bury Vissel and all-but confirm a famous win.
Ogawa and Kurata were denied from some good goalkeeping before Abe made it 5-1 with another stunning half-volley. Usami brilliantly spread the play to Patric who kept the ball in and passed to Hiroyuki who chipped the ball over his marker before exquisitely finishing on his left foot at the near post despite being under pressure from 2 Kobe defenders. Abe again scoring a golazo in a derby match!
Former Gamba man Hideo Hashimoto found himself free at the back post but tamely shot at goal before we rung the changes with Abe and Patric getting a deserved early rest with golden oldies Futagawa and Myojin getting some minutes under their belts. We comfortably phased the game out with Vissel conceding 5 at home for the since 2005. What a stunning result and performance. Once again, our effort paid dividends in all areas. You cannot ask for more than that.
Man of the Match
Whilst our attacking play was brilliant once more, our defence did give Vissel chances to score and get back into the game on numerous occasions but it was with massive thanks to Masaaki Higashiguchi that we kept level/ahead through the match with the keeper making some world class saves to prevent the hosts. He was also extremely unfortunate not to save Marquinhos’ penalty. Masaaki has shown us what we have been missing for years – a leader in goal, a commander of the defence, a shot stopper and a calming figure when under pressure. His reading of the game was excellent and his reactions just as good. People may forget his massive contribution to the win and our current top form but I definitely will not. If he keeps going, he will be expecting a call for the national team sooner rather than later. A top goalkeeper was one of the biggest differences today.
Higashiguchi – 10
Yonekura – 8
Nishino – 8
Iwashita – 8
Oh Jae-Suk – 8
Abe – 8.5
Endo – 8.5
Konno – 8
Omori – 7
Patric – 9.5
Usami – 9.5
Kurata – 7.5 (Sub)
Futagawa – 7 (Sub)
Myojin – 7 (Sub)
We fly all the way up to 8th from 11th and we are now just 1 point behind Vissel who stay in 6th place. We are now just a win away from the ACL places and should be aiming to at least maintain this position for the rest of the season. We are now 6 points ahead of the relegation zone and will be looking to win again next weekend against the stuttering Yokohama F.Marinos. The season was going to be make or break before the start of the September but it definitely looks like we are going to make it a good one with a stream of winnable games still to come. Barring injuries, the top half is definitely our minimum.