Kyoto Sanga vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 7
Wednesday 6 April 2022
Sanga Stadium by KYOCERA
Kick Off: 18:30 (JST)
The first full midweek J1 card of 2022 sees Gamba make the short trip north to Kameoka for a Keihan Derby with near neighbours Kyoto Sanga. This will be the first league meeting between these two in nine years and both sides come into the fixture buoyed by impressive 3-1 victories at the weekend. The Nerazzurri needed a positive result and performance at home to Nagoya on Saturday, and got both, while Sanga inflicted further pain and punishment on struggling Kobe with a come-from-behind victory at the Noevir Stadium. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Cho Kwi-jae and their supporters would be the fact that the goals were shared around and none came from talisman Peter Utaka. Gamba may have the more illustrious history of the two teams, but they enter this tie on a level footing with the Royals as both currently sit on 8 points courtesy of 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. The Ao to Kuro travel to Shizuoka on Sunday a few hours prior to Sanga hosting Tosu, so it’s not inconceivable that either Kansai club could make it through this tough week unbeaten therefore they’ll undoubtedly be going flat out for a positive outcome here.
Tale of the Tape
There’s an old saying in America that ‘offense wins games, but defense wins championships’ and while there’s certainly a case to be made that Gamba currently possess neither a strong attack nor a particularly reliable backline, baby steps are being made in both regards. The Nerazzurri’s 10 goals in their opening 6 J1 outings (from an xG of 6.14) is joint 3rd best in the division, however, at the other end of the field, the 10 goals conceded across the same time-span (8.83xG Against) ranks 4th worst. With only 6 games played there aren’t a whole lot of data points to work with, but we can still see a clear contrast between rounds 1-3, Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki and the 3 most recent clashes with Iwata, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Going forward, the accrued xG For figure was just 1.95 for the first 3 fixtures compared with 4.19 in the next trio, while defensively, xG Against stood at 5.56 after the 2-2 draw with Frontale, but since then it’s amounted to a mere 3.27 across 3 games. A work in progress for sure, though importantly progress does appear to be getting made. Finally, and briefly, in my preview for the Grampus game I predicted Gamba might see a lot of the ball and would have to be wary of Nagoya counter attacks, in this case I was proven to be dead wrong. The Ao to Kuro secured their first home win of the year in rather comfortable fashion (the first time they’ve won at home in J1 by a 2 goal margin since the 2-0 triumph over Yokohama FC last May) despite only completing 286 passes to their opponent’s 420 and having just 45% possession. This was a complete reversal of what happened in both clashes with the Giallorossi in 2021 and from a blue and black perspective, the result was all the better for it.
Goals have been raining in at either end consistently in Gamba games, however, in Kyoto’s case once you remove the 4-1 home defeat to Iwata and 3-1 victory at Kobe from the equation, you’re left with a more sedate 6 goals from the other 4 matches. Interestingly their xG For total of 6.16 is almost identical to the Nerazzurri’s, though 11.06xG Against must be something of a worry for kantoku Cho Kwi-jae and perhaps suggests why he chose to shake things up a touch for the Vissel encounter. Cho is a wily campaigner and has generally opted to set Sanga up to sit back and soak up opposition pressure. Again with the caveat of having a small sample size, Kyoto average 266 completed passes per game with a season high of just 301 which came in the home loss to Júbilo Iwata, this compares with Gamba’s 327 per match and the Nerazzurri also recorded their season best versus Iwata (505). After getting my match style prediction so wrong last time round I am a tad nervous about committing my thoughts to print again, but here were go. I think Gamba will seek to seize the initiative, control possession and take the game to Sanga, however, the Royals, who’ve clocked up over 200 sprints per game in all but 1 J1 fixture to date this season will look to press and harry Gamba’s players when they have the ball with the aim of creating counter attacking opportunities for themselves, something they did particularly well in the 2nd half of their match in Hyogo at the weekend.
Head to Head
This will be the first competitive match between these two since 2013 and in fact it’s been 12 years since they last duelled it out in J1. The 3-3 draw at the old Expo ‘70 Commemorative Stadium in the opening round of the 2013 J2 campaign should have been my first ever Gamba match, but as a newbie to Japan at that time I foolishly assumed I could just buy tickets on the day, not foreseeing that the Keihan Derby would sell out well in advance. As it was, I watched the drama unfold in Hub in Umeda, and what drama it was. Two goals in the space of three second half minutes through, first Hiroyuki Abe, and then a penalty from Leandro (no, not the FC Tokyo one) were sandwiched by efforts from Kyoto’s Jun Ando and Koji Yamase before future Japan international Yuya Kubo fired Sanga into the lead in injury time. However, the Nerazzurri were not to be denied in Kenta Hasegawa’s first game in charge and earned another spot kick which consequently led to the dismissal of Royals’ Serbian defender Miloš Bajalica. Yasuhito Endo stepped up and coolly slotted home to earn his side a share of the spoils in what was to be the first of 5 draws within the opening 7 rounds as the Ao to Kuro initially struggled to come terms with life as a J2 club.
The return fixture in matchday 40 saw Gamba all but wrap up the J2 title with a comfortable 2-0 win in the rain at the old Nishikyogoku Stadium. Yasuyuki Konno set the blue and blacks on their way in the first half before Kotaro Omori settled things with 4 minutes of normal time remaining, netting his first ever J.League goal at an absolutely crucial moment. The Nerazzurri secured promotion back to the top flight the following week with a 3-2 triumph at home to Montedio Yamagata and we all know what happened in 2014.
* Needless to say an 18:30 kick off on a non-national holiday Wednesday hasn’t gone down well with travelling Gamba supporters, many of whom were hoping to visit Sanga Stadium for the first time. Their frustrations wouldn’t have been helped by the scheduled pre-season fixture between these two being postponed due to the Nerazzurri’s Covid-cluster, still there’s always next season, well, fingers crossed.
* Dogs of War – Dawhan made his long awaited J1 debut alongside Mitsuki Saito in the Gamba engine room last Saturday and, apart from a rather shaky opening 10-15 minutes, he was a revelation. The Ao to Kuro recorded a season high 171 sprints versus Grampus and a good number of these can surely be put down to the relentless Dawhan and Saito who never gave their opponents a moment’s rest. Nagoya captain Sho Inagaki was hooked at half-time while Leo Silva used all of his nous to earn a number of free-kicks, but was constantly overwhelmed in the middle of the park, being fed weak, aimless passes and then left facing 2, or even 3 on-rushing blue and black jerseys which very much made him look like the 36 year-old battle-worn veteran he is. The Dawhan and Saito double act is certainly something to keep your eyes on in the coming days and months.
* Rotation, rotation, rotation – 3 games in the space of 8 days means all J1 teams are likely to be tweaking their lineups this week which has made my team selections below a little trickier than normal. This is the first time Gamba have played 3 league fixtures in such a short space of time under Katanosaka so I had no real evidence to fall back on when making my picks. I’ve gone conservative (if it works for Hajime Moriyasu, why not?), but don’t be surprised if there are more changes to the lineup in reality, though I hope at least the same 4-4-2 system that was successful against Grampus is utilised again here.
* Renaissance man Kurokawa – Basically the embodiment of Gamba across the last 2 league outings, had a bit of a ‘mare versus Fukuoka before bouncing back in surprising and impressive fashion against Nagoya. My long-term followers will be well aware of my admiration of Takashi Usami and there’s no other way to spin his injury than as a huge loss for the club, but, it does seem to have inspired others, Yuya Fukuda late on in the Avispa bout and Kurokawa here to plough forward and have a shot whereas in the past giving the ball to Usami and having him direct operations from there on might have been the safer option.
* At the scene of every crime there’s Hiroto Yamami – The circumstantial evidence is piling up…no goals or assists again, but he was heavily involved in all 3 of Gamba’s goals as they breezed past Grampus in the Suita City sunshine. His excellent free kick in the first half eventually broke to Gen Shoji whose shot was then, of course, deflected home by Patric for the opener. In the second stanza, number 37 played provider once more, supplying the ammunition for Mateus and Kazuya Miyahara to combine for a comedic own goal (comedic if you don’t support Nagoya that is), before occupying space and defenders with an intelligent run that allowed Kurokawa to cut inside and slam the clincher past the despairing dive of Mitch Langerak. Two assists away to Oita in the Levain Cup, the final touch, but not assist, to set up Fukuda’s winner at Reds and now his performance here, things are starting to click for the diminutive forward. With a trip to the scene of his biggest heist to date, the Nihondaira Stadium in Shimizu, on the horizon, what might he produce to whet the appetite in the northern suburbs of Kyoto this Wednesday?
* It’s not often I get the chance to praise Gamba for being ahead of the game when it comes to innovative social media work, so I’m going to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth. Allowing dressing room mood-maker Shota Fukuoka to ‘hijack’ the club’s official Twitter account on April Fool’s Day was a masterstroke and a cut above the usual ‘we’ve signed Messi ha ha ha’ posts. Well done to all involved …even if I’ve heard complaints about a lack of shirtless Yuya Fukuda pictures!
Takashi Usami (achilles) and Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee) are the two definite absentees for Gamba with Usami likely to miss most, if not all, of the campaign and Higashiguchi due back in mid-to-late May should his rehabilitation go according to plan. Ryu Takao left the field on a stretcher on Saturday, but he appeared to have no more than cramp, while Ko Yanagisawa, Yuya Fukuda, Yuki Yamamoto and Hiroki Fujiharu were all surprisingly missing from the matchday squad last weekend. No updates have been forthcoming from the club to date so if I was to speculate I’d say, being saved for this game (Yanagisawa and Fujiharu), chronic ankle problem flaring up again (Fukuda) and not fitting in with Katanosaka’s system (Yamamoto) are possible reasons to explain their non-selection, but it is very much a case of wait and see.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
In their first season back in Japan’s top flight since 2010, taking eight points from their opening six fixtures represents a decent start for Sanga. From the outside it appears that Cho Kwi-jae is the ideal kantoku to steer them to safety and expectations in Kameoka seem to be realistic. It’s apparently very much in vogue now (was it ever out of vogue?) for clubs / national teams to have a few positive results, or even a good year, and then conveniently forget how out of place that run of form was compared with how they’ve fared for the majority / entirety [delete as appropriate] of their history. That doesn’t seem to be the case at Sanga and I’m sure retaining their status as a J1 club for 2023 will be seen as a success. Veteran forward Peter Utaka, at the ripe old age of 38 is their goalscoring lifeline and I know it is very much a tired cliché, but he’s ageing like a fine wine. With that said, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a team full of grizzled veterans, midfield dynamo Sota Kawasaki, a product of the club’s under-rated youth system has shone brightly early doors this season, in fact so much so that he must be on a number of fellow J1 sides’ radars by now. In all honesty, I think Kyoto might struggle to escape the bottom 4 or 5 places this season, but I am on record as saying the ingredients are there to be ‘this year’s Fukuoka’ if everything clicks. However, unlike Avispa, in addition to Kawasaki (20), other young guns such as centre-back Shogo Asada (23), attacking midfielder Shimpei Fukuoka (21) and on-loan left-back Takuya Ogiwara (22) would likely head to fresh pastures should the Royals hit the dizzy heights of 8th this year leaving Cho with a big rebuilding job on his hands. Still, I’m getting way, way ahead of myself, of more immediate concern to Cho is fixing a backline that was actually the least porous in J2 last term (giving up just 31 goals in 42 games). Dutchman Jordy Buijs has since headed to Fagiano Okayama with Rikito Inoue moving the other way to take his place. Inoue and the aforementioned Asada did well against Kobe at the weekend and hopefully that means the ill-advised Mendes-Appiah Tawiah experiment will be brought to an end, now just to restore Takahiro Iida to first choice right back and they’re all set.
Playmaker Naoto Misawa suffered an achilles injury in pre-season, similar to the one later sustained by Takashi Usami and won’t be back until September at the earliest. Two winter additions, Martinus (unused sub) and Genki Omae (second half replacement) haven’t featured in a league or cup squad since the opening day victory over Urawa, I presume this is injury related. Winger Kosuke Taketomi who has struggled for fitness in recent years was taken off after 24 minutes on Saturday and his status is currently unclear. Elsewhere, Covid cases have been reported by the club and key central midfielder Shohei Takeda was a prominent omission from the matchday squad versus Kobe. Keeper Tomoya Wakahara, utility player Daigo Araki and forward Yuta Toyokawa also dropped out having being selected for the previous round, though in their cases I’m uncertain if this was due to injury, Covid or non-selection.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.