Gamba Osaka vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima
2022 J1 Season Round 15
Wednesday 25 May 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)
The penultimate round of J1 action before the June international break sees Gamba Osaka hosting in-form Sanfrecce Hiroshima at Panasonic Stadium. Both sides come into this bout having been on opposite ends of 3-1 scorelines at the weekend. The Nerazzurri endured a tortuous trip to prefectural neighbours Cerezo, meekly surrendering a half-time lead with a timid and tame display after the break where despite doing precious little in the way of attacking they somehow managed to concede 3 times from counter attacks. A late on-field bust-up between Gen Shoji and Leandro Pereira, in addition to trouble between players and supporters after the final whistle, proceeded to cast a cloud over the club as a whole. However, moving away from faux social media outrage and hyperbole, publicly kantoku Tomohiro Katanosaka and the players have said the right things to calm the situation and it’s worth remembering there are still 7-8 first-teamers due to return in the coming weeks so it’s not all doom and gloom. Things are far brighter down Hiroshima way with early coach-of-the-season contender Michael Skibbe’s side currently on a run of just 1 defeat in their last 9 league outings which has seen them shoot up to 4th in the standings. Most recently they brushed past Kyoto Sanga at the Edion Stadium courtesy of strikes from Makoto Mitsuta (more on him later), Junior Santos and new-signing Nassim Ben Khalifa. For some amongst the Ao to Kuro support, the red-hot Three Arrows flying into town might be the last thing they wanted to see coming over the horizon, but perhaps it’s best for all those of a blue and black persuasion to see this as an opportunity to quickly put the horrors of last Saturday behind them and rally behind the seemingly forgotten 2021 battle cry, ‘Together as One.’
Tale of the Tape
I said in my Osaka Derby preview that I felt the Gods of fate had been smiling warmly on Gamba during their recent run of 3 games unbeaten with 3 clean sheets. Well, last Saturday at the Yodoko Sakura Stadium, those Gods turned their backs with wretched consequences for the Nerazzurri. The numbers in the first table below tell you everything you need to know as, with the exception of sprints, all of the key performance metrics rank amongst the poorest 3 or 4 of the year and the xG for figure of 0.23 is the lowest in my records (which I started keeping at the beginning of 2021, so currently includes 52 matches), beating the 0.29 from the 1-0 win away at Sagan Tosu last April. Of course a derby is worth 3 points just like any other league match, but a defeat in it obviously stings that bit more, add in the fact that the Nerazzurri lost after taking the lead for the first time since last July, had only a single effort on goal following Hiroto Yamami’s opener and have now tasted victory just once in their last 10 clashes with Cerezo in all competitions and you can get a gist of why the visiting players and supporters were feeling so frustrated at full-time (which absolutely does not excuse the aggressive actions of a few). However, with all that said, the Osaka Derby essentially came down to the last play where a poor free-kick from Gamba led to an excellent Cerezo counter brilliantly finished by the irrepressible Hiroaki Okuno. With my blue and black sunglasses firmly fixed, may I suggest that the match was just a quality Gamba delivery away from finishing 2-2? Of course, 3-1 Cerezo is a far more accurate representation of how things actually went, but the Nerazzurri, tired and bruised and missing the likes of, Higashiguchi, Takao, Saito, Onose, Yamamoto, Fukuda, Patric and Kurata, who are all due back soon, managed to keep themselves in the tie until almost the final kick of the ball. That’s the positive I’ll be clinging to, though as we’ll see in the next paragraph, Sanfrecce Hiroshima are not likely to be willing participants in a Gamba revival on Wednesday night.
Before joining Hiroshima, Michael Skibbe was a coach I’d heard of, but I definitely couldn’t tell you much about what he’d been up to in recent years. Additionally, Germans I follow on Twitter were almost universally sceptical about his appointment, which had me and many others predicting a mid to lower mid-table finish for the Violets in 2022. However, since arriving in Japan after entry restrictions on foreigners were lifted in March, Skibbe has overseen something of a revolution in his mere 2 months of face-to-face communication with his squad. Three points and only 3 goals scored in the first 5 league fixtures gave way to the aforementioned run of just a solitary setback in their most recent 9 J1 outings. Skibbe’s form of gegenpressing is evident in the second stats table below with all metrics, excluding distance covered, bettering 2021’s numbers. Particularly impressive, for me anyway, is the 37.2 increase in sprints per game (non-stop running from right wing-back Tomoya Fujii has been a key factor in that), plus the 0.22 xG for improvement while also achieving a 0.18 drop in xG against. I’ll get a bit more in-depth about the club and players themselves in the ‘Sanfrecce Hiroshima’ section below, but for now I think it’s safe to say that a team long-known for effective, if unexciting football are now back among the league’s headline grabbers. Sitting just 4 points behind inconsistent Yokohama F. Marinos in 3rd, a genuine push for an ACL spot, unthinkable before the season began, is beginning to look more and more like a realistic prospect.
Head to Head
3 April 2021 marked Gamba’s return to the field of play following a 5 week break due to a Covid cluster in the squad, and their opponents that day were Sanfrecce Hiroshima. A largely forgettable 0-0 ensued at the Edion Stadium with chances at a premium and Sanfrecce kantoku Hiroshi Jofuku’s decision to play Junior Santos, normally a centre-forward, on the left-wing turned out to be the game’s main talking point which I think kind of tells you how uneventful things were. The return fixture took place a mere 39 days later as it was a tie originally scheduled for round 20 that had been brought forward owing to the Nerazzurri’s participation in the ACL. It will forever be remembered as Tsuneyasu Miyamoto’s final game in charge of the Ao to Kuro as Hiroshima’s 2-1 triumph left Gamba with just 7 points from their opening 10 games and the powers that be at the Panasonic Stadium flicked the panic switch. Sho Sasaki put the visitors in front before a scrappy Kazunari Ichimi effort, which would probably have been put down as a Keisuke Osako own goal in most other leagues, levelled things up at the interval. Hayao Kawabe then displayed the kind of form that made Grasshoppers, and later Wolves, make moves for him with a fine finish to secure the 3 points midway through the second-half.
Panic on the streets of Osaka – Not really something I wanted to write about, but it would be the elephant in the room if I didn’t address it, so here we go. And, don’t worry I’m not about to go all Daily Record on you and get a former player out to lecture people on how team-mates falling out on the pitch is actually a good thing, but with that said, in the cold light of day it probably isn’t the worst thing in the world either. I’ve seen Gamba lose by scorelines such as 4 or 5-0 and not a single player has picked up a caution, at least the actions of Shoji and Pereira, heat of the moment and unruly as they may have been, showed that the players were embarrassed by what was going on and this hopefully means they’ll strive to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Also I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cerezo full-back Riku Matsuda who helped diffuse the situation along with the likes of Genta Miura. As for the stuff between the players and fans after the game, I’m not really sure exactly what happened so I’m not going to go on about it too much. What I will say is, the club have handed out suspensions and bans to supporters already this season for actions such as shouting abuse at the Cerezo team bus and verbally intimidating opposition supporters on the Panasonic Stadium concourse, so once the facts have been collated, you can expect swift and heavy handed action from Gamba, and potentially the J.League too.
Hiroto Yamami – Perhaps lost in the gloom of the post-match apocalypse, it’s easy to forget that Gamba went into the sheds a goal to the good last Saturday thanks to Hiroto Yamami’s header which just crept across Kim Jin-hyeon’s line despite his best efforts to convince everyone otherwise. It was a much needed first J1 goal of the year for Yamami, hot on the heels of his 3rd assist of the Levain Cup group stages against Kashima. You could see how much it meant to him and from a Gamba perspective, hopefully this is the first of many this season.
Minamino vs Sakamoto – Interesting to note was the absence of Isa Sakamoto from the matchday squad for the Osaka Derby having been a late replacement for Harumi Minamino in the 3-1 loss to Kashima in midweek. Sakamoto clearly wasn’t one of the recent Covid cases yet high schoolers Minamino and Kuwahara were still on the bench ahead of him at the Yodoko Sakura Stadium. Katanosaka has spoken of his admiration for the physical development of Minamino and Kuwahara, saying words to the effect of “they are ready to play against adults,” so the feeling is that Sakamoto may have been sent to the gym for some extra physical training.
* And finally…congratulations to Jiro Nakamura for his selection in the Japan U-19 squad for the Maurice Revello Tournament in France from May 29 to June 12 and also to Kwon Kyung-won who was once again chosen in the South Korea squad for their upcoming internationals.
I’ll keep the same format here as last time and I’ll also add that several of the players who had asymptomatic Covid have been training since last Friday though it’s unknown who they are. With so much uncertainty I’ve gone conservative with my team-selection, it’s equally possible that there will be a lot more changes
GK Masaaki Higashiguchi – In full training, expected back in June
DF Shota Fukuoka – Had a small injury, was training again, potential Covid case
DF Ryu Takao – Out of the squad since 17 April, suspected to have a minor injury
MF Yuya Fukuda – Dislocated left shoulder vs Kobe on 8 May, underwent surgery on 23 May
MF Ju Se-jong – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic he should be ready to play (rumoured to be heading back to South Korea in the summer so we may have seen the last of him in a blue and black uniform)
MF Shu Kurata – Calf problem, expected back in June
MF Kosuke Onose – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic he should be ready to play
MF Mitsuki Saito – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic he should be ready to play
MF Yuki Yamamoto – Injured leg on 17 April, no confirmation of injury by the club
FW Patric – Potential Covid case, if asymptomatic he should be ready to play
FW Takashi Usami – Achilles tendon rupture on 6 March, likely out for the season
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Anyone hoping for a change of pace from the Michael Skibbe love-in witnessed in the ‘Tale of the Tape’ section above is about to be disappointed as I continue to use my positivity over Sanfre’s start to the season to distract me from the issues at Gamba. A quick glance through the Three Arrows history indicates that they’ve been J1 champions on 3 occasions (2012, 2013 and 2015) as well as finishing as runner-up twice (1994 and 2018), so taken from that perspective their current ranking of 4th might not seem particularly impressive. However, since that aforementioned 2nd place in 2018 they’ve been on a steady slide which culminated in 11th spot last year and long serving coach Hiroshi Jofuku receiving his marching orders before the season was done. Step forward Michael Skibbe who, with essentially the same group of players, save for a couple of university recruits, youth team graduates recalled from loan spells in J2 and a club-less former Swiss international, has utterly transformed the team’s fortunes. A Gamba vs Sanfrecce preview wouldn’t be complete without me gushing over former Gamba Junior Youth centre-back Hayato Araki, a colossus in defence and way too handsome to be playing in that position. Midfield deserves a mention also, with Skibbe recently moving from a 3-4-2-1 to a 3-5-2 with a central triangle containing, the rejuvenated Gakuto Notsuda at the base and the two kingpins, potential J1 rookie of the year Makoto Mitsuta (4 goals, 3 assists), and possible bolter in Hajime Moriyasu’s World Cup squad Tsukasa Morishima (4 goals, 1 assist) further forward. A final mention too for flier Tomoya Fujii down the right flank, a real live-wire who looks like he has what it takes to earn international honours one day. Hiroshima play with such intensity that a 3 game match-week presents a real challenge for them in terms of keeping everyone in their relatively small squad fresh, it would be a major boost for Gamba if any of the likes of Fujii, Mitsuta or Morishima were to start this tussle riding on the pine.
GK Takuto Hayashi – reserve goalkeeper, absent for last 2 J1 games plus most recent Levain Cup tie
MF Ezequiel – long term ankle injury, last played 2 March
MF Takumu Kawamura – knee problem, expected back soon
FW Yuya Asano – not in squad last weekend, hasn’t featured much recently, unclear if his absence was down to injury or non-selection
FW Shun Ayukawa – broken foot, expected back in August
MF Gakuto Notsuda and FW Junior Santos are both 1 yellow card away from an automatic 1 match suspension.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.