Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 24
Saturday 6 August 2022
Best Denki Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)
**Disclaimer – the majority of this preview was written prior to Avispa Fukuoka’s Covid cluster being announced, so it may read a little strange in certain places. Unfortunately, as a full-time teacher and part-time blogger I had to get most of my comments and analysis done on Sunday and Monday. However, I hope there are still plenty of pithy insights to keep you entertained.**
Tomohiro Katanosaka labelled last Saturday’s match at home to Covid-ravaged Kyoto Sanga a 6-pointer. After only picking up a solitary point as a result of Genki Omae’s soul crushing 97th minute penalty kick cancelling out Ryotaro Meshino’s opener, what does that make this game away to Avispa Fukuoka? The Nerazzurri survived an early blitz from Sanga’s special designated player Yudai Kimura (Hiroto Yamami’s kōhai at Kwansei Gakuin University) before taking a grip on proceedings thanks to Ryotaro Meshino’s first strike since returning from a 3-year stint in Europe. It was a scrappy, scrappy goal that looked like it would lead to an ugly, but ultimately vital victory, especially in the wake of Daiki Kaneko being ordered off (35 minutes too late from a Gamba perspective). However, lady luck once again chose not to shine on the Ao to Kuro at their cursed home stadium. Yamami missed a glorious chance to wrap things up and after Kimura tumbled under Higashiguchi’s ill-advised lunge, Genki Omae had to first, fight off the distraction that was his irate team-mate Martinus, before coolly slotting home to earn a potentially priceless share of the spoils for the Royals. Avispa, like Kyoto, were in Osaka on league business last Saturday, and they were also weakened by a number of Covid cases in their camp. Unfortunately for them, Cerezo were in no mood to show any mercy and Matej Jonjić’s early header in addition to substitute Satoki Uejo’s clincher meant Fukuoka headed back to Kyushu on a run of just 2 wins from their last 9 league games with only 6 goals scored during that time. Due to other round 23 results going their way, Gamba were able to nudge their way out of the bottom 3, but they remain precariously perched just 1 point ahead of bottom club Shimizu, who they face in Suita next Sunday. Avispa sit in 10th, 5 points above the danger zone, and because of their anaemic attack and recent poor run of form they certainly can’t consider themselves safe just yet which makes for a fascinating contest this Saturday at the Best Denki Stadium.
Tale of the Tape
I went into Gamba’s numbers in great detail in last week’s preview, so I’ll try to brief in here as, in truth, the equation is quite simple for the Nerazzurri, start doubling one goal leads and the late heartbreaks will soon become a distant memory, sounds so easy written down like that, doesn’t it? Genki Omae’s additional time spot-kick added to the collection of points ceded during the dying embers of matches this season. It’s a list which also includes, Leandro Damião’s 95th minute equaliser for Frontale, Alexander Scholz’s last gasp penalty for Urawa a few weeks back, and also Jean Patric’s memorable winner for Cerezo in the Osaka Derby just before the EAFF Cup enforced break. I know the Nerazzurri snatched a late leveller of their own away to Shimizu in April, but even throwing that into the mix, it’s still 6 points given up right at the end of games, and with the tightness of the 2022 league table, those 6 points are currently the difference between a relegation scrap and mid-table. With last Saturday’s opponents Kyoto ravaged by Covid, so much so that they only had one recognised centre-back on the field, any in-depth look at the stats has too many caveats involved to really tell us much. Gamba’s 2.23xG For was only the second time that figure has been above 2 all year, though the other occasion was against a Vissel Kobe side that then sat bottom of the league and were reduced to 10 men for more than half the game. This was also the first time the Ao to Kuro had outshot their opposition since that bright and sunny day in early May (though they did achieve parity away to Sagan Tosu). I’ll get into things like new signings, injuries etc. in later sections, but the main conclusion anyone should take from this part of the preview is that Gamba are in a genuine battle for survival and all statistical indicators show that it’s exactly where they deserve to be based on on-field performances.
Fukuoka were something of a surprise package 12 months ago, finishing 8th and leaving teams such as FC Tokyo, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, both Osaka clubs and Kashiwa trailing in their wake. That success was built on a holy alliance of a rock-solid defence and an ability to take chances in the opposition penalty area when they came along. Fast forward to 2022 and Avispa find themselves 2 spots lower in the standings and possess the division’s best rearguard, giving up only 20 goals in 23 outings. At the other end of the field, things generally haven’t functioned as smoothly. Winter recruit from Júbilo Iwata, Lukian, has yet to catch fire, netting only 3 times in 23 appearances which has led to the Wasps propping up the J1 goals scored charts with just 17 in total. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Avispa have bagged 7 goals in 2 matches against FC Tokyo as well as netting 3 away to Gamba in March meaning that in their other 20 fixtures they’ve only scored a paltry 8 times, a figure which includes 13 matches in which they’ve failed to hit the back of the net. Their xG For numbers suggest they should have scored 24.94 goals up to this point and that 7.94 under-performance of goals scored vs xG for is probably the biggest factor behind their slight slip in the standings. As I alluded to above, they are relatively safe in mid-table at the moment, but lying only 5 points above the drop zone with 11 matches remaining, they can’t afford to get too complacent. I know they had Covid issues in the lead up to the game with Cerezo which may explain their xG For figure of just 0.28, but more worryingly that was part of a wider trend of just 2 goals scored from an xG of 2.15 across their past 4 outings and kantoku Shigetoshi Hasebe will surely be hoping the recent re-recruitment of Cameroonian forward John Mary can help remedy that issue. Speaking of Hasebe, his go to formation is 4-4-2, though he has tinkered on occasions and opted for a 3-4-2-1 set-up to try and give game-time to each of his 3 excellent centre-backs, Douglas Grolli, Daiki Miya and Tatsuki Nara. However, with Nara suspended for this tie, it’s likely we’ll see the Hachi take the field in their usual 4-4-2 system with their wingers hoping to inflict the same amount of damage that they did in the return fixture against Gamba in Suita.
First Match Recap
Gamba’s 3-2 loss at home to Avispa in mid-March was the first real warning sign that all was not well in the Nerazzurri camp this year, while at the same time it provided their visitors from Fukuoka with a maiden league win of the season at the fifth time of asking. Belgian winger Jordy Croux took advantage of some hesitancy in the Ao to Kuro backline to fire the Wasps ahead after only 10 minutes and it stayed that way up until the interval. Gamba started brightly after the break, but were caught out on the counter and former Nerazzurri wide-man Tatsuya Tanaka collected his usual goal against his old side. Then, with 9 minutes remaining, Ko Yanagisawa inadvertently swept a Takeshi Kanamori cross past Kei Ishikawa for an embarrassing own goal to make it 3-0 and just like Tanaka’s strike earlier in the half, it came about through the Hachi targeting the left-hand side of the home defence. The indignity of that moment as well as the lopsided nature of the scoreline seemed to shake Gamba out of their slumber and late efforts from Yuya Fukuda and Leandro Pereira brought more respectability to the result, though that was scant consolation for the Curva Nord faithful. Fukuoka, on the other hand, left Suita in buoyant mood after exorcising the ghosts of their first 4 league outings in which they had scored just once and accrued only 3 points despite putting in some decent performances.
Mood in the camp – I guess the nervous performance, lacking in fluency for large spells seen at home to Kyoto tells the story really. With Ryotaro Meshino slightly out of position at centre-forward due to the absence of Suzuki, Patric and Sakamoto, the Nerazzurri struggled to keep the ball in the attacking third for sustained periods. When they were eventually able to get at Kyoto’s makeshift backline, they caused problems and eventually after a series of dangerous breaks early in the second-half the deadlock was breached. Unfortunately after that, the Ao to Kuro failed to kill the game off, began sitting deeper and deeper and to be honest I felt no surprise at all when a penalty was conceded right at the death. The Gamba support generally still bear a lot of goodwill to Katanosaka, the front office are, to their credit, making some big splashes in the transfer market, but will it all be enough to stave off relegation? Following a run of 5 consecutive road defeats, some more Yappari Patric magic is surely the order of the day to see off a stubborn Fukuoka side this Saturday and kick-start the Nerazzurri’s 2022 campaign.
Transfer Update – As if to deflect attention away from Saturday’s disappointing result against Kyoto, there was the announcement on Sunday 31 July that Kashima Antlers winger Juan Alano would join on a permanent deal. Even Sports Hochi’s Gamba beat reporter Mr. Kanagawa (essentially the Fabrizio Romano of north Osaka) admitted he didn’t know anything about the move until it was announced. Whether that’s a sign of more secrecy around the Gamba front office following the embarrassingly public failed pursuits of Yuta Higuchi, Eduardo and Yuya Yamagishi in recent months, or the panic button being pushed leading to a deal being concluded at break-neck speed, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Anyway, for now a front 3 of Alano on the right, Meshino on the left and Suzuki through the centre seems to be the house the Nerazzurri are building their survival hopes upon. Gamba club chairman, Mr. Ono made comments on 3 August suggesting that after the capture of Alano, the Nerazzurri’s summer business was now complete which hopefully means the Ao to Kuro are not one of the J1 sides reportedly competing for ex-Vissel and Cerezo stopper Dankler.
Brazilian forward Leandro Pereira was an unused substitute against Kyoto and information passed to me from people who were in Panasonic Stadium last Saturday night suggests that he left the bench midway through the second half, made his way down the tunnel and didn’t re-emerge to walk round the field with his team-mates after the final whistle. He then posted a cryptic message in his native Portuguese on Instagram which seemed to translate along the lines of ‘never give up when you face a struggle.’ Make of all of that what you will.
Regular Referee Rant – Readers of this blog and listeners to the J-Talk Podcast will be familiar (overly-familiar?) with my views on Kohei Okuno’s VAR-assisted red card against Kawasaki a few weeks back. Using that logic then yes, I think Saturday’s referee Hiroki Kasahara was absolutely correct to give Daiki Kaneko a final verbal warning just before the break for a foul that surely met all the criteria of a yellow card, which of course would have meant the already booked Kaneko would have been ordered off and his beleaguered team-mates would have had to play the remaining 45 minutes a player short. As it was, Kaneko did eventually receive his marching orders with 9 minutes left on the clock, prior to which Gamba had gone 1-0 up so you could argue his presence didn’t make a lot of difference and due to the Nerazzurri’s nervousness, handing them an even bigger advantage may actually have been counter-productive. However, rules are rules ands they need to be applied fairly, where is the line between human officials’ empathy based decision making and the logic-only approach of technology? My argument is, Okuno shouldn’t have seen red so early against Frontale and Kasahara handled things correctly with Kaneko on Saturday, but instead we have a situation where on one occasion technology overrides a referee’s prerogative to give a strong final warning and on the other there’s no outside intervention, I don’t think that’s right or fair. Rant Over.
Expo Excitement – On Wednesday 3 August, Gamba opened up their Expo pop-up store in the Lucua 1100 department store adjacent to JR Osaka Station. Rather surprisingly so many people turned up that fans had to be turned away on the opening day. It will remain in place until Tuesday 9 August and I’m hoping to make the trip there at some point over the weekend. If you spend ¥4500 or more and you get a free bag with your favourite player’s name and number on it, plus there are paint cans (not sure why?) full of goodies and inside one of them is a Gamba home shirt signed by none other than Mr. Takashi Usami.
**Note – The club announced on Tuesday 2 August that one player had tested positive for Coronavirus. As per the usual protocols the player’s identity remains a secret.**
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
GK Jun Ichimori – 2 dislocated fingers in right hand, expected back by the end of this month at the earliest
MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, he revealed that he was behind Yuki Yamamoto in terms of a return date, may be back at the end of this month at the earliest
MF Rihito Yamamoto – Fractured bone in foot, should be back in early September
MF Yuki Yamamoto – Sustained a knee cartilage injury, in May, but joined full training on Monday 1 August suggesting a comeback is not far away
FW Patric – not in squad for draw with Kyoto, Katanosaka said “due to poor physical condition” which is a catch-all phrase that could mean almost anything, was seen in training pictures and videos on 1 August
FW Isa Sakamoto – Sat out the friendly with PSG and then not in the squad for the match with Kyoto last Saturday, presumably has a minor injury
FW Musashi Suzuki – not in squad for draw with Kyoto, Katanosaka said “due to poor physical condition” which is a catch-all phrase that could mean almost anything
FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season
Dawhan, Shu Kurata and Kosuke Onose are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4
Predicted Lineups and Stats
I might as well get the ‘second year syndrome’ cliché out of the way right at the start of this section before aiming to finish things off on more of a high note. Although they are only 2 places below 2021’s excellent showing, viewed from the outside at least, it seems like the mood in and around the Best Denki Stadium is a few notches lower now than it was 12 months ago. In my pre-season preview I wrote about Avispa “I like what they’ve done in the transfer market, I like it a lot.” Unfortunately for the Wasps, when I looked into my crystal ball back in January it turned out I interpreted the data in an overly positive manner. I’ve already alluded to Lukian’s struggles above, Tatsuya Tanaka (1 goal and 1 assist, only 9 J1 starts) has also not really bedded in as well as expected and with the attack not firing for large parts of the first half of the year, the club made the rather strange move to bring back Cameroonian forward John Mary. I say strange because kantoku Shigetoshi Hasebe chose to start him only 5 times in J1 during his loan spell last season despite him impressing when given serious minutes on the park. Other than that, Yota Maejima (Yokohama FC) has been a solid addition when fit, though he hasn’t quite matched the levels of the departed Emil Salomonsson. Takumi Nagaishi turned his loan deal from Cerezo into a permanent one over the winter and has usurped J-Talk goalkeeper of the half season Masaaki Murakami from the starting lineup during the past 5 league matches while experienced defender Tatsuki Nara also spent 2021 on loan at Fukuoka before inking a full-time deal this term, and he’s continued to be his dependable self. Attack has been a source of concern for Hasebe all year, but one man who hasn’t let him down has been Yuya Yamagishi. Able to play as a central striker in a 4-4-2 or as a shadow-forward in a 3-4-2-1, Yamagishi turned down advances from Gamba this summer and to date he has 6 goals and an assist in 23 outings including 3 goals and one assist in his last 7 games as if to show the Nerazzurri just what they are missing. What I really like about the make-up of Avispa’s squad is that they’re not a particularly young team, however, the majority of the players are in the sweet-spot age bracket of 25-30 and, in my book at least, that’s a major factor behind why they are generally pretty solid and consistent. I feel they’ll be just about ok in the final shake up and obviously there is still time available to conduct more summer transfer business in addition to the arrivals of John Mary and MF Yuto Hiratsuka (Mito). However, for the moment I’d like to sum things up by saying, this does very much feel like a (perhaps necessary) season of treading water for the Wasps after the fireworks of 2020 and 2021, though having endured a lifetime of yo-yoing between J1 and J2, that might be just what the doctor ordered.
This section will be a bit different this week as Fukuoka have confirmed over 20 cases of Covid among first-team players and staff over the past week or so meaning any reasonable attempt at guessing their lineup for Saturday is futile. Only having 2 outfielders (backup ‘keeper Takumi Yamanoi even came on as an outfielder in second-half injury time!!) on the bench didn’t stop them from picking up a super-impressive 2-1 win at Kobe in their Levain Cup quarter-final first-leg on Wednesday, so Gamba have been well warned. Tatsuki Nara is suspended, Yuto Hiratsuka has joined from Mito HollyHock and his status is currently unclear. Juanma Delgado, John Mary, Daiki Miya and Shun Nakamura were all absent for the trip to Cerezo last weekend, presumably with Covid, but all 3, except Nakamura, returned against Vissel. My advice to any Sorare managers would be, don’t pick any Avispa players for this game week unless you can’t avoid it, there are too many unknowns.
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Avispa Fukuoka vs Cerezo Osaka (a) J1, 30 July
Avispa Fukuoka vs Vissel Kobe (a) Levain Cup, 3 August
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.
Avispa Fukuoka vs Gamba Osaka