Gamba Osaka vs Vegalta Sendai
2021 J1 Season Round 28
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Sunday 12 September 2021
Kick Off: 18:30 (JST)
The international break is over and the Levain Cup quarter-finals are done and dusted, now it’s time for the first full slate of J1 games this month. Gamba Osaka host Vegalta Sendai in a match that could have big implications at the foot of the table. The Nerazzurri are still smarting from their harrowing trilogy with prefectural rivals Cerezo, however, crucially they’ve had a rare free midweek in the run up to this game. A Nerazzurri win here, coupled with a Tokushima loss at Nagoya on Friday night, would put a ten point buffer between them and the drop zone with only ten rounds remaining, so perhaps shards of light are beginning to emerge at the end of a very long and winding tunnel. Sunday evening’s visitors Sendai, on the other hand, currently sit eighteenth in the standings, eleven points worse off than Gamba. They’ve reached the do-or-die stage of their season, meaning a win at Panasonic Stadium is an absolute must as if results go against them they could sit bottom of the pile on Monday morning.
In truth, neither side come into this tie in particularly inspiring form. Since their re-arranged round five fixture on August 3, Gamba have won just one of their six J1 contests and most recently had fans hurling obscenities at the team bus in the aftermath of the humiliating 4-0 defeat at home to Cerezo in the second leg of their Levain Cup quarter final last Sunday. Things have been similarly grim up north in Sendai, though they have had two weeks to prepare themselves since their last league outing. The men from Miyagi, though, have no wins, a solitary goal, and a mere two points from their five matches since the 1-0 home reverse to the Nerazzurri just over a month ago. The pressure is on both Masanobu Matsunami and Makoto Teguramori ahead of this fixture, a win for Gamba and they can almost crawl across the finishing line, a loss for Sendai and a first season in J2 since 2009 starts to loom very large on the horizon. I believe this is what my fellow Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson, referred to as ‘squeaky bum time.’
Just a quick reminder to check out my Q and A post from last week, a lot of the content in it is much less time sensitive than my usual match previews, so please have a read if you haven’t already. Thanks once again to everyone who submitted a question and also to all of you who regularly read, like, comment on and share my blog posts, it means a lot to me. I’m open to suggestions for ways to improve these previews and also things you’d like to see covered in future weeks when Gamba might not be in action. Let me know in the comments either on WordPress or Twitter.
Tale of the Tape
This a battle between a team who play poorly at home versus one that struggles on the road. Levir Culpi seems to have a bit of free time on his hands now, so if he could maybe pop over and undo whatever curse he placed on the home dressing room during his time in charge at Panasonic Stadium then I’m sure both Gamba and the Samurai Blue would greatly appreciate it. Since the Brazilian’s departure midway through the 2018 campaign, the Nerazzurri have been defeated eighteen times on their own patch versus sixteen on their travels. And before anyone digs too deeply, I know the Culpi curse isn’t the real cause of Gamba’s inability to win in Suita as they’ve actually lost fourteen of thirty league games (47%) at Panasonic Stadium since the Coronavirus outbreak, how the Nerazzurri’s power brokers must be yearning for a return to normality. Vegalta, by contrast, possess the third weakest away record in the division and in the wake of their 5-0 drubbing at Yokohama F. Marinos in their previous road match, they now average 2 goals against per game outside of Miyagi with only Oita (2.23) and Yokohama FC (2.57) faring worse. Additionally, looking at combined home and away stats, Sendai have the lowest possession percentage in the league, averaging just 42.1% per match and their xG Against numbers aren’t much better, 1.6 per outing sees them rank nineteenth, a place below Gamba (1.54).
As you would have seen in my post last week, making sense of Gamba’s season stats is nigh on impossible due to all of the rotation and injuries which have resulted in nothing remotely close to the same lineup being named in consecutive games so far this year. With regular six to seven day gaps between league fixtures now upon them, we should, in theory, see things settle down a touch. Nerazzurri fans will certainly hope that consistent selection at the back and in the holding midfield roles will help to bring down the league high figure of 15 shots against per game. I mentioned the club’s shocking home form earlier, but more generally their current total of 13 league losses is only one shy of tying their 18 team J1 record of 14 set in 2012 and 2018 (I know there are 20 teams this year, but we’re only at round 28 which makes this statistic worse, if anything). Any team worth their salt has worked out that the way to play against Gamba in Suita is to sit deep, stifle their powder puff attack and then launch swift counters, Sendai did that wonderfully last year, can they repeat the trick here, or will they go the way of fellow strugglers Yokohama FC, Oita and Tokushima who have all left Panasonic Stadium empty handed? The yellow and blues have had their own issues at home and it’s interesting to note that in the aftermath of their victory over Kashiwa Reysol, their first at the Yurtec Stadium in well over a year, veteran Kunimitsu Sekiguchi admitted that after winning the coin toss they’d decided to shoot towards the opposite end than they normally do just to try and break the vicious cycle of defeat. I feel Gamba should opt for a similar approach, use the away dressing room, have the team bus take a different route to the stadium, stay in a hotel the night before, just try something, anything to end this wretched run of home defeats.
Head to Head
Gamba saw off Sendai 1-0 a little over a month ago thanks to Patric’s headed strike from Yuki Yamamoto’s first-half corner. At that time the Nerazzurri were in the midst of their summer fixture onslaught, while their hosts for the evening were just back from a near month-long break and often struggled for attacking fluency. Right-back Takumi Mase, someone I praised in the pre-match preview wasted Vegalta’s best opportunity, heading high and wide after Keisuke Kurokawa had inexplicably ducked out of the way of a dangerous looking cross. Mase went on to miss an even better chance, an event which rather summed up Sendai’s season, in the 1-0 home loss to Tosu a few weeks back, but has generally been one of the team’s better contributors in his actual position of full-back.
I gave a rundown of the 2020 head-to-head matches, Gamba’s 4-1 triumph at the Yurtec and Sendai’s 4-0 rout of the Nerazzurri at Panasta, in my preview for the reverse fixture back in August, so I won’t cover too much old ground here. I just wanted to add that Hiroto Yamada, a standout for the Miyagi side in the aforementioned 4-0 triumph, was also tormentor-in-chief for his parent club Cerezo, as they too left Suita with a four goal victory in the bag last weekend. Maybe Gamba could make moves to take him off the Cherry Blossom’s hands just to stop things like that from happening in the future? It’s just a thought.
Gamba’s run to the semi-finals of the 2019 Levain Cup soured my image of the competition, probably irreparably, as after playing 12 games (over a third of a regular J1 season) we were eliminated on away goals with absolutely nothing to show for our endeavours. With that in mind, getting put out of this year’s edition is no water off my back, the manner of the exit is another matter entirely. If I try to spin it positively, it could serve as the kick up the backside the squad needs going into the remaining eleven league fixtures where the first choices should hog the majority of the playing minutes. As an aside, with all the intricate rules in Japanese football regarding how and when you can register players, am I the only one who found it slightly bizarre that with quarter-finals being played over two legs, Wednesday and Sunday, Cerezo were able to register Takashi Inui in between those two games? This ‘loophole’ strikes me as a bit odd, especially with all the judgements raining down from on-high regarding players having valid PCR certificates or not.
Recently I always seem to find myself using this space to talk about Gamba’s centre-backs, and this week is no exception. After playing the full 90 minutes on both Saturday and Wednesday nights, Gen Shoji was summoned by his country ahead of their World Cup qualifier against Oman at Panasonic Stadium on Thursday (September 2) as a result of Ko Itakura’s late withdrawal due to injury. Hajime Moriyasu loves calling up Sanfrecce players, and they’ve got a good defence, so why not go for the impressive Hayato Araki? Did he not want to leave them too short for their re-arranged clash with Kobe on Sunday? Urawa’s Hiroki Sakai was then released ahead of the squad’s departure for the Middle East to play China, a fair decision in my book, as it was stated he was exhausted following a punishing schedule over the summer. However, Shoji has also endured a heavy workload with both ACL and J1 games coming thick and fast in recent months, yet he gets no respite? Some of what I’ve said above is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, especially the stuff about Moriyasu’s penchant for selecting Hiroshima players, but, in all seriousness, I doubt he’s particularly endeared himself to anyone of a Gamba persuasion with some of his decisions over the past few days.
I’ll finish this section on a more positive note with my thoughts on Takashi Usami. I received a very thought-provoking question from Sam Robson for last week’s blog and I’ve been dwelling on my answer a bit in recent days. Usami’s stats are not great this year in terms of goals and assists, but think back to last Saturday’s Osaka Derby, Usami created what should have been Gamba’s equaliser with a delicious, teasing ball over the top of Cerezo’s defence, Kosuke Onose expertly met it first time and centred for Patric who tried a back-heel flick from only a few yards out, almost identical to the way he beat Park Il-gyu of Tosu last season, but he failed to make contact and the chance went begging. Similarly at 4-0 down on Sunday, Usami didn’t give up, and again floated a wonderful ball into the box which was met by Shinya Yajima, admittedly not the person you really want winning headers in the opposition box, and he forced Kim Jin-hyeon into action, tipping his effort over for a corner. Usami is still fighting, it’s time for his team-mates to step up too.
Oh, and one last thing, I loved the portmanteau 山ンバ (Yamamba) I saw on Twitter last weekend, hopefully I get to see it many more times in the years ahead.
Kim Young-gwon, Ju Se-jong and Gen Shoji should all be back in the mix after returning from international duty. Kim and Shoji’s returns, in particular, are welcome in the wake of Genta Miura getting stretchered off in last Sunday’s Levain Cup quarter-final second leg. Gamba’s skipper twisted his right knee awkwardly following a collision with Riki Matsuda and after initially trying to get back to his feet, he lay down once again for treatment and needed to be helped from the field meaning Yosuke Ideguchi had to fill in as a makeshift central defender. At the moment it’s unclear how serious the injury is, but it didn’t look great at the time. Miura’s centre-back partner for the evening Shunya Suganuma is available, but may be given a few weeks on the naughty step for his underwhelming efforts at keeping Cerezo at bay (I’m being very polite here). Some good news is that Ryu Takao is back after five weeks out with an ankle injury. However, Yuya Fukuda (hamstring), Dai Tsukamoto (thigh) and Wellington Silva (groin) are still on the treatment table with no date yet given for their returns while Jun Ichimori and Haruto Shirai continue to go through rehabilitation programs for their long-term injuries.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Sendai’s summer transfer work suggests they’re running low on cash reserves, with only Cayman Togashi, a forward Teguramori knows from his time at Nagasaki, and centre-back Naoya Fukumori to be found in the arrivals lounge. Togashi started off his professional career reasonably well with Yokohama F. Marinos back in 2016, but has since developed a reputation as a hard-working forward who struggles to find the back of the net, and frankly with Shuhei Akasaki and Yusuke Minagawa already on their books, that is the last thing Vegalta needed more of. Fukumori, on the other hand, made a grand total of 19 J1 appearances across two-and-a-half seasons with Oita and Shimizu, yet he’s waltzed right into the heart of Sendai’s backline, starting all four games since coming on-board. If you contrast this with, say, Júbilo Iwata in J2, who acquired Makito Ito and Ryo Takano from Marinos, plus Shota Kaneko from S-Pulse this summer, which team do you think are playing with the bigger transfer kitty? From a Sendai perspective, perhaps the most worrying thing is that if they do go down this year, they may struggle to bounce back anytime soon.
Makoto Teguramori likes operating with a back four, generally in a 4-4-2 system, but occasionally 4-2-3-1 when necessary. However, in a similar vein to fellow strugglers, Oita and Yokohama FC, Vegalta have reached the stage of the season where plans A, B and C have failed and all available metrics point to an impending relegation, so they’ve figured they might as well throw the playbook out the window, and they could be all the more dangerous as a result. After their 5-0 shellacking at the hands of Yokohama F. Marinos in round 25, Teguramori ditched 4-4-2 in favour of 4-2-3-1 for the home loss to FC Tokyo before getting very experimental with a 3-4-2-1 in the following match versus Tosu, whether this is just akin to shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic remains to be seen. If I were to throw in my tuppence worth, they should look to get Brazilian forward Felippe Cardoso and Ghanaian winger Emmanuel Oti involved more. While that duo may not have the kind of rigid tactical discipline their coach is looking for, they might possess an x-factor their team-mates don’t and that, at the moment, appears to be the only possible salvation for Sendai.
As alluded to above, this will be Sendai’s first outing in a fortnight so it’s possible the players mentioned below could have recovered from any injuries they were suffering from. I actually don’t have any confirmed absentees, though both Chihiro Kato and Emmanuel Oti have been missing from the squad for the past three matchdays while Ryoma Kida and Foguinho were subbed at half-time against FC Tokyo on 25 August and weren’t selected for the following match at home to Sagan Tosu. Whether that decision was tactical, or down to fitness issues remains to be seen.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.