Japanese Super Cup
Kawasaki Frontale vs Gamba Osaka
Saturday 20th February 2021, 13:35 (JST)
Saitama Stadium 2002
Just over 7 weeks since their last match in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, these two giants of Japanese football return to do battle in front of a limited crowd of 5,000 supporters in Saitama this Saturday afternoon.
In truth, there hasn’t been a great deal of change at Kawasaki since January 1st, meaning, in my eyes, at least, they are still very much the team to beat in 2021. With that said, despite 3 defeats and a grand total of 0 goals scored against Frontale last year, there are reasons for Gamba to be more confident ahead of this encounter which should provide an early acid test for both sides. While a repeat of the 3-3 draw we witnessed between Yokohama F.Marinos and Vissel Kobe in last season’s curtain raiser may be unlikely, we can surely expect more accurate penalty taking, should it come down to that. (chortle, chortle)
I appeared on the J-Talk Podcast ahead of the Emperor’s Cup Final and also did a companion mini-preview for that game, so I’m not going to go over old ground. Instead, let’s take a look at what both of these sides have done transfer-wise this off-season.
Gamba, by most accounts, had one of the more accomplished winters of all J1 clubs, re-enforcing depleted areas while only losing one first-team regular, veteran forward Kazuma Watanabe (Yokohama FC). Midfield maestro Yosuke Ideguchi and injury-plagued Japan international central defender Gen Shoji are also both back and successfully came through the team’s training camp in Okinawa. As for the new arrivals, Leandro Pereira, J1’s 3rd top scorer with 15 strikes in 2020 is the headline signing, and Gamba fans will also be excited to see what role South Korean central midfielder Ju Se-jong (FC Seoul) occupies. As mentioned on numerous occasions last season, when Ideguchi was out, the Nerazzurri had no effective ball winner in the middle of the park, Ju should provide extra grunt and whether he is seen as an alternative to Ideguchi, or his partner in crime, will be revealed over time.
Elsewhere, centre-back Yota Sato comes highly rated from Meiji University (Yuichi Maruyama, Ryuji Izumi, Hirotaka Mita, Shuto Abe and Yusuke Segawa are just a few alumni from that particular institution) and his arrival surely gives Gamba the strongest group of central defenders in the division. Goalkeeper Mizuki Hayashi (Yamaguchi) and attacker Kazunari Ichimi (Kyoto 2019, Yokohama FC 2020) return from loan spells, but they, along with winger / central forward Tiago Alves (Tosu), are likely to be backup players for the majority of the campaign. Fluminense winger Wellington Silva is a rumoured target, but owing to current coronavirus restrictions, it’s unknown when he’d be able to enter the country if he did sign. His capture would help to provide competition for both Kosuke Onose and Shu Kurata and give the Nerazzurri an extra attacking dimension from the flanks which can only be seen as a good thing from a blue and black perspective.
Kantoku Tsuneyasu Miyamoto is known as someone who regularly challenges his ideas about how football should be played and isn’t wedded to any particular formation. Gamba’s relatively poor offensive showing in 2020 has him considering alternatives to the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 set-ups we saw for the bulk of the last campaign and 4-3-3 has been mooted as the way forward. Big names have come in and seasoned pros have returned from injury, but I’m still hopeful that Miyamoto will continue to give youth it’s chance and we will see the likes of, Keisuke Kurokawa (left back / left wing-back), Kohei Okuno (central midfield), Shuhei Kawasaki (left wing), Dai Tsukamoto (wing / forward) and 18 year-old prodigy Shoji Toyama (forward) get more opportunities to shine. Many eyes will also be on Yuki Yamamoto and Yuya Fukuda, with both expected to build on impressive showings last time out.
Due to being runaway J1 champions in 2020, there was little real incentive for Kawasaki to go out and make wholesale changes to their squad over the winter. As someone raised watching European football, the fact that the double winners from the previous year can’t just hoover up all their rivals’ best players is one of the most refreshing things about the JLeague. Hidemasa Morita (Santa Clara) is the only regular starter from last season to have moved on, while Manabu Saito (Nagoya), Kengo Nakamura (retirement) and young Taisei Miyashiro (Tokushima – loan), have also left Todoroki Stadium. In their place come some interesting new additions who could thrive, or underwhelm.
Brazilian central midfielder João Schmidt has the ability to make an impact, but found his playing time curtailed last year with Nagoya as he wasn’t a good stylistic match with Massimo Ficcadenti’s system. It may seem harsh to point out flaws in someone who has won 3 J1 titles in 4 years, but, to date, Toru Oniki has struggled to get the best out of the foreign (mostly Brazilian) talent at his disposal. Granted, why one of Asia’s top club sides shop in the Brazilian second tier so regularly (Diogo Mateus, Maguinho, Caio César) is another question for another day. However, with Jesiel and Leandro Damião taking until their second year to really make strides, the accusation still stands largely unanswered at this point, and how Schmidt adapts to his new surroundings will be interesting to watch.
Kazuki Kozuka (attacking midfield – Oita) is another intriguing acquisition. Trinita’s leading assist maker in 2019 regularly failed to make the squad for the Kyushu side last time out despite having the same head-coach, using the same formation, and Naoki Nomura, an important player in a similar role, missing a large chunk of the campaign. There was no official injury report, and I’m interested to know the real reason for his absence. Did something go on behind the scenes after Frontale’s reported move for him ahead of the 2020 season? We may never know.
Koki Tsukagawa has come in from Matsumoto Yamaga after bagging 9 goals in 29 J2 outings in 2020, and from the outside it seems like he’ll fill the backup midfield role previously occupied by Hokuto Shimoda (now at Oita). In attack, Kei Chinen (Oita), Daiya Tono (Fukuoka) and Ten Miyagi (Toyama) are back from loan spells that brought varying degrees of success, they’ll provide cover for Damião and Kobayashi. Central midfielder Kento Tachibanada (Toin Yokohama University – my old stamping ground) joins fellow Toin alumni Zain Issaka and Miki Yamane in the squad, while defender Shuto Tanabe moves east from the football factory that is Shizuoka Gakuen High School. How much action either of these two will see in 2021 is up for debate.
I’ve discussed a similar topic with a few people on Twitter and I’m still not sure what metrics European clubs are using to determine that while the likes of Koki Saito and Daiki Hashioka are quickly snapped up, top talents such as Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma remain in Japan. Should Tanaka and Mitoma stay Frontale players for the whole season then I can only see a 4th league title in 5 years, but the overdue departure of one or both may throw a spanner in the works. My hunch is that one of the duo will probably move on in the summer with the other following next winter. Despite that, plus the ageing of veterans like Ienaga and Kobayashi, Kawasaki are still my favourites to be crowned champions, though possibly more in the manner of their 2017 or 2018 triumphs than last season’s landslide.
Super Cup History
Taking a look at the tables below, we can see that this will be Gamba’s 7th Super Cup appearance (putting them 3rd behind Kashima (10) and Urawa (9) in the rankings) and victory on Saturday will allow the Nerazzurri to lift the trophy for the 3rd time, which would pull them level with Júbilo Iwata in joint 5th position. Kawasaki, on the other hand, first appeared in the 2018 edition and are now preparing for their 3rd Super Cup match in 4 years. They have a 50% win record at the moment, going down 3-2 to Cerezo in their inaugural appearance in 2018 before seeing off Urawa a year later.
Yuji Ono and Haruto Shirai are both recovering from knee operations performed last year and are definitely out. Overseas trio, Kim Young-gwon, Leandro Pereira and Tiago Alves all missed the first half of Gamba’s Okinawa training camp due to quarantine restrictions, so at the moment it’s unclear how much of a role they will play on Saturday. Yosuke Ideguchi and Gen Shoji fully participated in the club’s pre-season program and should be ready to go the full 90 if required, while Takashi Usami took a knock to his knee a couple of weeks back, but I haven’t heard anything since that would indicate he’s a doubt.
Left-back Kyohei Noborizato (collarbone fracture) missed the tail end of the 2020 season and is still out, while influential central midfielder Ryota Oshima appears to be highly doubtful having been absent from pre-season training.
I’ve been pretty conservative with my predicted Gamba lineup, making only one change to the side that lost 1-0 in the Emperor’s Cup final. An alternative to this would be, Shoji partnering Miura at centre-back with Sato on the bench and Kim missing out due to a lack of sharpness. I also have Leandro Pereira as a sub due to missing a chunk of pre-season training, though in the long run I think he will overtake Patric as the main starter. Regarding the mooted change to 4-3-3, I was reluctant to opt for it as that would mean one of Kurata or Onose missing out, and I couldn’t decide who. A central midfield of Ideguchi, Yamamoto and Ju Se-jong does have a very strong feel to it and I can definitely understand Miyamoto’s mindset in considering such a formation.
The main source of debate regarding the Frontale starting lineup is the shape of the midfield triangle, will it be last season’s one holding midfielder and two players in more advanced roles or two holding and one ahead. With the likely absence of Ryota Oshima, I’ve opted for the latter. It’s been rumoured that left-back Shintaro Kurumaya will focus on playing centre-back this season, so we could see Reo Hatate or even young Kaito Kamiya slot in on the left side of defence in Noborizato’s absence. Kazuki Kozuka offers an alternative to Wakizaka in attacking midfield and I’ve gone for Damião ahead of Kobayashi up top as he started all 3 games vs Gamba in 2020.
Some might say it’s a fool’s game making predictions for one-off season openers like this, but it feels like I’m contractually obliged to do so. I’ll say an Ideguchi inspired Gamba will grind out a 1-1 draw, taking the tie to penalties, and from there it really will be a lottery…
Japanese Super Cup