Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 26
Saturday 20 August 2022
Edion Stadium Hiroshima
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)
Obon has been and gone in Japan, and with little over 2 months of the 2022 J1 season remaining Sanfrecce Hiroshima against Gamba Osaka on Saturday night brings us a match with big implications at both ends of the table. Hosts Hiroshima lie in 5th place, but are just 2 points behind Kashima in 2nd, while at the foot of the standings, Gamba are 2nd last and only lead bottom club Júbilo on goal difference. A heart-breaking 2-0 loss at home to the Saxe Blues’ prefectural rivals Shimizu courtesy of late strikes on the counter from substitutes Benjamin Kololli and Carlinhos Junior left Gamba’s J1 hopes hanging by a thread and saw the curtain come down on the eight-month reign of Tomohiro Katanosaka. Contrastingly, Sanfrecce notched a 2nd consecutive victory away to top 6, Kanto-based opposition in their come-from-behind 3-2 triumph at Kashiwa Reysol. It was a 3-pointer that arrived hot on the heels of a 2-0 at Kashima the week before and they seem to have eased themselves out of their recent slump of just a solitary win in their 6 previous outings. Will Hiroshi Matsuda’s appointment give Gamba enough of a new boss bounce to help them upset the odds against an impressive Viola side? We’ll get our answer to that soon enough.
Tale of the Tape
Last Sunday’s 2-0 home defeat to Shimizu marked Gamba’s 2nd xG win in-a-row as well as the second time in succession that they’ve not been outshot by their opponents, you’ve got to take the small victories when they come to you, right?…right? Joking aside, in all honesty going into last weekend’s Expo game I fully expected to lose, but the performance and level of fight on display from the Gamba squad was better than I anticipated. The Nerazzurri took the game to their visitors and controlled large parts of it, though unfortunately that old, familiar foe ‘susceptibility to counter attacks’ reared it’s ugly head in conjunction with an inability to convert pressure into goals and it was that deadly duo that ultimately sunk the Nerazzurri. The Ao to Kuro have generally looked pretty decent in the middle part of the field this season, and indeed Dawhan, Kohei Okuno, Keisuke Kurokawa and Isa Sakamoto all got pass marks from me on Sunday, especially in the first-half. However, it is the lack of a clinical edge in the attacking third combined with careless errors at the back (see Gen Shoji’s in the build up to Carlinhos Junior’s clincher for S-Pulse), that have been the blue and blacks’ undoing in a season where little to nothing has gone right. Shimizu have now won 2-0 at FC Tokyo and Gamba in consecutive weeks and if you were to sit someone with limited knowledge of the J. League down and have them watch those two matches back-to-back, I’m sure they’d struggle to pick which team was 8th and which was 17th, FC Tokyo or Gamba. Alas, it’s scant consolation for the Nerazzurri and their supporters and I’m really clutching at straws in the positivity stakes this week as frankly we appear doomed with 10 fixtures remaining. Like I mentioned above, there were several bright sparks versus Shimizu, however, for each good point there was a negative to balance things out. Ryotaro Meshino was far too selfish in possession, constantly trying to be the hero, I’ve no idea why Hiroki Fujiharu is playing as a left-sided centre-back, Musashi Suzuki clearly wasn’t fit and the Ao to Kuro diminished as an attacking force when he replaced Sakamoto. Also, though it pains me to say it, it appears that Shu Kurata is only in the Gamba matchday squad these days on reputation and because he’s the club captain. Hiroshi Matsuda had just a few days of working with the players after coming in as an experienced pair of hands to help Katanosaka out last week, so it’s unclear how much of Sunday’s strategy came from each coach. What we did see was a more energetic performance than in recent outings, though understandably that was hard to maintain over 90 minutes played out in intense heat and humidity and Gamba’s subs simply didn’t match their Shimizu counterparts in terms of influence. There were a lot of long-range diagonal balls to bring high-sitting wing-backs, Kurokawa and Onose, into play, Sakamoto’s movement and drifting between the lines gave S-Pulse’s centre-backs plenty of food for thought, however, ultimately the overall team performance ended up being akin to a meal that tasted good at the time, but had little real substance inside to fill you up. Gamba have been keeping themselves in games this term, they’ve only lost by more than 2 goals once, and on that occasion they were playing 10v11 for 83 minutes (don’t worry, I’m not about to go down that rabbit hole again). They need to somehow stop the rot, keep their heads from dropping, pick up an unexpected result from somewhere and then build from that.
25 league games into their 2022 J1 campaign and there’s a remarkable synergy between Hiroshima’s xG figures and the number of actual goals they’ve scored and conceded, particularly at home (I don’t have anything to properly back this up, but anecdotally it appears J Stats’ xG model is more accurate this year compared with last season), and I feel this highlights the quietly effective way kantoku Michael Skibbe has got his side going about their business. This is the 3rd Gamba Osaka vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima match preview I’ve written this year as we’ve had one Covid-enforced postponement, I’ve been effusive in my praise for the Viola the past 2 times and nothing has really happened since then to make me alter my tune. One thing worth repeating is their impressive sprinting numbers which have increased by an average of 20.7 per game since last year, from 169.9 up to 190.6. Irrepressible wing-back Tomoya Fujii, scorer of the winner away to Kashiwa last weekend has led the charge with a J1 best 829 sprints so far in 2022, a staggering 323 more than his nearest team-mate in that metric, Makoto Mitsuta, who has 506. In spite of Nassim Ben Khalifa’s early strike against Reysol and the ageing and injury prone Douglas Vieira bagging 3 goals and an assist in just 5 sub appearances, there has been a general absence of fire-power from the centre-forward position, though thankfully attacking midfielders Tsukasa Morishima and Makoto Mitsuta have made up for that. After netting just 9 times in J1 during his first 6 seasons as a pro, Morishima has has almost doubled that tally in 2022, hitting 7, while partner-in-crime Mitsuta has 5 goals and 5 assists in a hugely impressive rookie year. New Cypriot international forward Pieros Sotiriou, signed from Bulgarian cracks Ludogorets on Monday, would appear to be the cherry on top of the cake as far as Viola fans are concerned. Midfield has probably been Sanfrecce’s area of greatest improvement compared with 2021 as Taishi Matsumoto has really started to fulfill his enormous potential alongside someone who is a candidate for comeback story of the year, Gakuto Notsuda. The Hiroshima youth product, who has been loaned out 4 times already in his career bagged assist numbers 6 and 7 versus Kashiwa and was also involved in Japan’s successful EAFF Cup campaign last month, quite the year so far for the 28 year-old and who would have predicted that when the season kicked off back in February? The Notsuda-Matsumoto partnership is the main change Skibbe has instigated at the Edion Stadium recently, evolving from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1 setup. Tsukasa Shiotani will be out for around 6 weeks which leaves Sasaki, Araki and Nogami basically untouchable in the defensive positions, Takumu Kawamura’s return from injury allows the option of rotation in any of the slots in the middle 6 and star turns Morishima and Mitsuta will surely continue to provide the thrust and guile behind the main attacker, whoever they may be, Ben Khalifa, Douglas Vieira or Pieros Sotiriou.
First Match Recap
After the originally scheduled clash set for 25 May was postponed due to a Covid outbreak in the Sanfrecce squad, the re-arranged match took place a little over a month later on 29 June and it proved to be one of the high points of Gamba’s season to date. Following a slow opening that Hiroshima slightly shaded, Gamba struck decisively with 2 goals in the space of 4 first-half minutes. First, Keisuke Kurokawa drilled home an angled drive from just inside the Hiroshima penalty area. Soon after, neat build-up play saw Mitsuki Saito’s shot cannon back off the post, and from the resulting passage of play, the Nerazzurri worked the ball into the Viola box and it broke kindly for Isa Sakamoto to net his first J1 goal from close range. It was a poacher’s effort which drew comparisons with former Ao to Kuro forward and the leading scorer in J2 history, Masashi Oguro. Hiroshima had come into the game on the back of 4 consecutive victories, while Gamba had lost their previous 4 fixtures, however, there was to be no comeback after the break and the hosts ended up seeing things out rather comfortably to prove that no result is a foregone conclusion in the J. League.
* The Katanosaka saga – A press release on the morning of 17 August confirmed what many had been suspecting for the preceding days, and weeks, that Tomohiro Katanosaka would no longer be kantoku of Gamba Osaka and former-Nagasaki boss Hiroshi Matsuda would be his successor. As a former assistant to Akira Nishino and Kenta Hasegawa during two of the Nerazzurri’s most successful spells in their history, Katanosaka, like predecessor Tsuneyasu Miyamoto leaves the club as an unsuccessful manager, but still someone who retains a special place in the hearts of the club’s supporters. Just 5 wins in 24 league games, 8 in 33 overall and with the team precariously positioned in 17th, only above Júbilo on goal difference at the bottom of the league standings, it’s difficult to make a case for Katanosaka to stay based on results. While injuries, specifically the one sustained by talisman Takashi Usami in round 3, stung badly, it’s important to note other clubs, such as Kawasaki, who were without Jesiel for the first half of the year, performed to a decent level without one of their top players, and others such as Urawa and Shimizu showed notable improvements once their stars became available for selection, that simply never happened at Gamba. A final thing worth considering is that almost every Japanese Gamba fan I’ve seen talking about this has said that the President and front office must be held accountable too. Anyone involved in paying big money to the likes of Ju Se-jong, Leandro Pereira and Wellington Silva and then firing Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, the man who wanted to bring them to the club, only 9 league games into the 2021 campaign, needs to take a long, hard look at themselves. Furthermore, it was essentially known that Katanosaka would be taking over from last August, yet no significant moves were made to bring in / move out players suitable / unsuitable for Katano-soccer last winter. As I said above, Katanosaka’s results have been poor, but one must wonder if he was set up to fail from the start. This is a dark chapter in the club’s history, there may be darker ones to follow, but make no mistake they’ll be back. It may take a year, it may take 5, it may take 10, but Gamba will return to the summit of Japanese football, mark my words.
* The turnout for Sunday’s Expo game stood at 27,662, Gamba’s highest (non PSG) attendance of the Covid-era, a mere 46 shy of the 2019 average, which of course was the best in the club’s history. However, it was almost 10,000 less than the 37,334 that watched the Ao to Kuro square off with Júbilo Iwata back in August 2019. Interestingly there were train and Wi-Fi issues on Sunday that weren’t in evidence when I attended the PSG friendly in July. Also, from my seat in the 8th row of the back stand, I observed pre kick-off that the referee, Yuichi Nishimura, had a quiet word with Gen Shoji and Takashi Inui separately. Everything appeared very cordial, but it seemed he specifically wanted to chat with those players about something. I’ve been critical of referees in recent weeks, however, on this occasion it appeared like it was a genuine attempt by the official to reach out to the players and try and deal with any potential problems at their source rather than waiting for them to flare up later on. I wonder if I’m just late to the game in spotting this, does anyone know, is this the sort of thing that happens often, or is it quite rare?
* Moflem (or Moh-foo-reh-moo in Japanese) is the name of Gamba’s new Sesame Street-esque mascot who was officially Christened prior to kick-off on Sunday night. The name has generally gone down well with Japanese Gamba fans, and as for me, all I’ll say is, at least it makes a break with the usual ….-kun J. League mascot names. In fairness to Moflem, it put in a decent performance on debut, it didn’t mess up the ceremonial kick-in, even if the players (Kosuke Onose excluded) did look a touch embarrassed holding their Moflem cuddly toys for the team photo. Perhaps it could be the answer to the Nerazzurri’s creativity issues in attack?
* The 2022 Expo Uniforms seemed to be a hit with everyone as both the field player and goalkeeper versions turned out really well. Judging by Gamba supporters’ posts on Twitter, Dawhan seems to have quickly acquired cult hero status among the Nerazzurri faithful as his #23 uniform was a popular seller. Unfortunately, he’s only on loan and I don’t imagine he’ll stick around for J2 football. From my, admittedly, minimal research, my #32 Sakamoto jersey seems to be the only one of it’s kind, and I found myself surprisingly rewarded by seeing the soon-to-be 19 year-old from Kumamoto make only his 5th J1 start where he gave a generally good account of himself for the 60 minutes he was on the field.
* While Shimizu fans inside Panasonic Stadium on Sunday night certainly played their part in making it a great occasion with their Samba drumming routines and orange lights, their supporters on Twitter aren’t half a chippy lot, are they? In the past they’ve been more than willing to chime in with unwanted and irrelevant chatter over issues like Gamba’s new emblem and the match against PSG, now a mere 5 minutes after leaving the J1 drop zone and you’d think they’d had the recent title success of Kawasaki. Forgive me if there’s some big ‘in’ joke that I’m not party to (and believe me, I’m well aware of the steaming mess that is the 2022 Gamba Osaka season), but I’m sure there’s someone in their fan base self-conscious enough to think ‘given our recent history, isn’t there a decent chance this bravado could boomerang back and smack us square in the face?’
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
DF Kwon Kyung-won – Pictured in training on Saturday 13 August, but then not in the squad for the match with Shimizu 24 hours later, did he pick up a late injury, was he the Covid case from the previous week, or was he just dropped?
MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, potentially back at the end of this month or early September
MF Rihito Yamamoto – Small fracture in instep of foot, currently working through a rehab program, should be back in early September
FW Musashi Suzuki – Katanosaka stated in an interview on 13 August that Suzuki was essentially a 50/50 for the Shimizu game, as it was, he came on as a second-half sub and didn’t look fit, so I expect him to start this match on the bench too
FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the season
FW Hiroto Yamami – Not in the squad for the loss to S-Pulse, it’s unclear whether he was injured, was the Covid case announced the previous week, or was possibly left out due to his bad miss late on against Kyoto
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
**Note – This will be the first matchday squad selected by new boss Hiroshi Matsuda, so expect changes.**
The big news out of the Hiroshima camp this week has been the signing of Cypriot international forward Pieros Sotiriou from Ludogorets in Bulgaria for a reported €2 million. That equates to a fairly hefty price tag in Japanese footballing circles, so the pressure will definitely be on him to deliver goals quickly and regularly. With 17 strikes in 25 outings in the Bulgarian First Division last year as well as over 50 caps for his country he certainly has the pedigree to succeed. On the way out is Junior Santos who was never able to recapture the form he showed briefly at Yokohama F. Marinos back in 2020 and could only muster 9 goals in 57 J1 appearances for the Viola. He joined Botafogo in his homeland on Tuesday 16 August, it’s initially a loan contract, but a permanent deal is likely if things go well for him there. From the outside it seems like a couple of shrewd pieces of business from Sanfrecce, even if the up-front fee for Sotiriou was a tad steep. He is a current international with European experience and more importantly is an out-and-out goal-scorer, which is exactly what the Viola require right now. Hiroshima are still fighting on three fronts domestically this year and after knocking Yokohama F. Marinos out of the Levain Cup at the quarter-final stage they next face Avispa Fukuoka in a two-legged semi-final in late September. Before that they have a tough looking Emperor’s Cup last 8 tie away to Cerezo Osaka early next month to negotiate. I guess the big question is, can Skibbe keep his squad suitably fresh and rotated in order to make it through a tough looking upcoming 6 weeks or so? Hiroshima’s 9 remaining league fixtures are something of a mixed bag, and a quick scan through them suggests there’s no reason for Sanfrecce not to continue to be in the running for a top 3 or 4 spot come the end of the season. Also, as I’ve just mentioned, they may even bag a cup or two as well which would put the Skibbe project ahead of schedule as he stated in his opening press conference that this year was about establishing stability before pressing on in 2023.
The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.
DF Tsukasa Shiotani – Injured his stomach playing in the Levain Cup on August 10, expected to miss around 6 weeks of action
MF Shunki Higashi – Suffered a leg injury in the recent defeat at home to FC Tokyo which will likely cause him to miss the rest of the season
FW Shun Ayukawa – Broke his foot in March, if his rehab has been going according to plan then he should be back soon
FW Pieros Sotiriou – The club announced his signing on Monday 15 August, in theory he should be ready to play on Saturday, but whether Skibbe risks him, or not, remains to be seen
Predicted Lineups and Stats
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Gamba Osaka