Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka 18 September 2022 Match Preview

Vissel Kobe vs Gamba Osaka
2022 J1 Season Round 30
Sunday 18 September 2022
Noevir Stadium
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

The stakes couldn’t be any higher for Gamba Osaka or Vissel Kobe ahead of this Sunday night’s Hanshin Derby. Hosts Vissel currently occupy the promotion / relegation spot, but they are just a solitary point behind their visitors from nearby Osaka, with a game in hand, following a crucial 2-1 victory over FC Tokyo in midweek. Kobe are only ahead of 17th placed Fukuoka on goal difference, while both Kyoto and Shonan sit a mere point above the Nerazzurri and 2 ahead of Vissel meaning that the result of this fixture could have serious implications across the country. Gamba come into this tie on the back of an 8 day break since their disappointing 0-0 draw with FC Tokyo at Panasonic Stadium, an outcome that looked like a distinct possibility pre-match and not a whole lot happened during the 90 minutes to suggest that it was going to end any other way. Having failed to score in their last 3 home outings, caretaker boss Hiroshi Matsuda may relish the chance to take his charges on the road again as they search for a third win on the spin outside of Suita. The Ao to Kuro have teased a potential return for Takashi ‘The Kobe Killer’ Usami, while there have been murmurings from the Kobe camp that seasoned international Yuya Osako could launch his latest comeback from injury here too. However, with or without that star duo we’re likely in for tension, drama and potentially a good deal of fireworks in one of Japan’s most picturesque cities, what more could you want from your Sunday evening?

Tale of the Tape

Five matches into Hiroshi Matsuda’s reign as Gamba kantoku and the Nerazzurri have won twice, drawn once and lost twice, accumulating 7 points in the process, if they can repeat that over their remaining 5 fixtures then they should just about be able to avoid the bottom three. Of course there have been ups and downs, defensively 3 clean sheets have been kept in 5 games (compared with 5 in the previous 24), while 8 goals have been given up in the other 2 outings against Hiroshima and Tosu. However, if it’s just the odd game when every shot from the opposition ends up in the back of the net versus stability in the next few, that’s probably an acceptable bargain given the current situation. Speaking of shots against, since the horror show at the Edion Stadium when 5 goals were ceded from 27 attempts, Matsuda’s Gamba have averaged only 12.3 (6 on target) shots against per 90 minutes compared with 15.9 (9.1) overall. The DAZN commentators on Saturday seemed to be on commission for using the phrase ‘442 zone defence’ when describing Matsuda’s set-up (‘innerlap’ appeared to be their buzzword when discussing FC Tokyo) and the signs do seem to be pointing towards greater defensively stability at Panasonic Stadium, though how much this is thrown off by Genta Miura’s concussion and the potential upcoming suspension headache (Kurokawa and Saito) remains to be seen. Further forward, Gamba applied more of a high-press against FC Tokyo than had been seen under Matsuda previously, with the Brazilian duo of Patric and a seemingly rejuvenated Leandro Pereira leading the charge. The Nerazzurri harassed and harried their opponents in their own half throughout the 90 minutes, though the strategy proved to be most effective during the opening half hour. FC Tokyo did seem to be made-to-order opponents for the Nerazzurri as, unlike Tosu the previous week, who came to Suita chastened by a 4-0 hammering at Kawasaki, the Gasmen were fresh off the back of a couple of more-than-decent results and had a slight air of ‘we only have to turn up here to win’ about them, which I’m sure irritated kantoku Albert Puig and their supporters no end. Gamba won 20 of 25 tackles attempted on Saturday night, I don’t quite have the stats to back this up, but anecdotally I’m pretty sure that’s by far the best performance in that metric all season. While it’s fair to say based on league position that FC Tokyo are much stronger than Gamba in 2022 and equally the Nerazzurri’s need to win was far higher than their opponents on Saturday, the sad truth is that the home side were unable to translate that greater desire and fighting spirit into something more tangible, like a much needed home 3 pointer. The lack of a finishing touch again came back to haunt them and it’s worth re-stating that the Nerazzurri’s top scorers are still Dawhan, Onose, Patric and Pereira, who are all tied on just 3 goals apiece. Furthermore, it should also be noted that this was the 3rd home game in-a-row where Gamba have failed to score, so there’s still plenty of work for Matsuda and his coaching staff to do on the training ground. While that might all be a touch negative, one bright spark for those of a blue and black persuasion was the return to the starting eleven of Yuki Yamamoto for the first time since round 9. The schemer helped take some of the creative burden off Juan Alano’s shoulders and put in an impressive display on attack and defence, completing 46 of 53 passes and supplying 1 last pass as well as winning 3 of 4 tackles (usually his weak point), making 3 blocks and recovering possession twice. The Ao to Kuro faithful will be hoping his partnership with Mitsuki Saito can continue to bear fruit over the remaining 5 games of the 2022 campaign.

Frankly speaking, Vissel have followed up a historic high 3rd place league finish in 2021 with an absolute abomination of a season to date this year. They kicked off their campaign with a run of just 1 win and 8 points from their opening 15 league fixtures and though things have picked up since then with 6 wins and 20 points being accrued from the next 13 games, they still find themselves mired in the bottom 3. During their Annus mirabilis last term they outperformed their opposition in terms of xG by 0.13 per game, however, this time round it’s been much more even, 1.22xG for per 90 minutes versus 1.21xG against, a razor thin margin which has left them susceptible to the vagaries of luck. Coaching and formation changes as well as injuries to key attackers Osako and Muto haven’t helped, but over the course of their 28 J1 games to date they’ve scored 9.35 times less than they should have based on their accumulated xG for figure of 34.16. Defensively things match up pretty evenly, 35 actual goals conceded compared with 33.88xG against. Vissel started the year in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond under Atsuhiro Miura and that has since morphed into a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 and latterly a 4-3-3 / 4-1-2-3 for the home bout with FC Tokyo. I may have wrote kantoku Takayuki Yoshida off as another shining example of tall, handsome men being more likely to earn promotions than anyone else in society and just another Mikitani yes-man, but in fairness to the former Nagasaki boss, he’s managed to grind out results with 5 wins, 2 draws and 3 defeats the league record so far during his tenure. Kobe are going at a clip of 2.13 points per game under Yoshida as opposed to 1.00 across the campaign as a whole, granted he did win his first 3 games in charge, before the ride became a bit more bumpy. The current set-up that Yoshida has implemented does seem to get the best out of Koya Yuruki and he’s really stepped up to the plate while his more experienced attacking colleagues have been on the treatment table, a double in the away win at Sapporo in addition to two assists versus FC Tokyo on Wednesday night are testament to that. However, Vissel just like their near neighbours Gamba have struggled to hit the back of the net with any kind of regularity, Yoshinori Muto is their top scorer with 5 strikes, closely followed by Osako and Yuruki on 4. Indeed, ex-Yamagata and Urawa winger Yuruki’s 7 direct goal involvements is the leading total at the club and it means he’s had a hand in nearly 30% of Kobe’s goals this year. Gamba have been well warned about where the danger is coming from in this Vissel side, will they be able to maintain their recent defensive stability, or will Yuruki, Muto and co. be able to expose some old familiar frailties?

First Match Recap

Gamba’s 2-0 stroll in the sunshine against Kobe at the end of Golden Week has, on reflection, probably been their season’s highlight to date. Granted, the early dismissal of Vissel centre-back Ryuho Kikuchi for a DOGSO offence certainly played it’s part, but there were plenty of signs prior to that which indicated the Nerazzurri were the more focused and driven side on the occasion and thus the likelier to come out on top regardless of how many players Kobe kept on the field. Jiro Nakamura smacked the crossbar, Ko Yanagisawa the left post and Kwon Kyung-won the right in a raucous first-half during which the aforementioned Kikuchi saw red for tripping Patric with the big Brazilian bearing down on goal. In fairness to Vissel they put their bodies on the line to prevent Gamba taking the lead in the second period and could even have gone ahead themselves when substitute Iniesta shimmied and jinked and played in Yoshinori Muto whose shot was well smothered by Jun Ichimori. However, the visitors were undone twice in the final ten minutes, Kwon Kyung-won headed home the opener after a corner was only partially cleared before Wellington Silva wrapped up the scoring with his first Gamba goal courtesy of a pretty large deflection. In the aftermath there were suggestions that the Ao to Kuro should have considered themselves fortunate to come out on top, but such diatribes failed to take into account the fact that Kikuchi was rightly ordered off, the Nerazzurri outshot their opponents 33-5, struck the woodwork three times and had shots blocked, deflected away, and saved on numerous occasions. The Kobe dam simply had to burst and fans like myself left Panasonic Stadium in buoyant mood with Gamba avoiding home defeat to Vissel for only the second time since the club moved to their new digs back in 2016.

Gamba Osaka

The run in – After this Sunday’s Hanshin Derby, there’s an international break which means Gamba aren’t back in action until their home bout with out-of-form Kashiwa Reysol on 1 October. The following week there’s a trip to Nissan Stadium to square off against title-chasing Yokohama F. Marinos, a side they’ve only lost away to once in their last 7 visits. Next, there’s a 3 week gap before the visit of Yasuhito Endo and Júbilo Iwata who could already be down by that point and then the league season finishes just as it began with a game against Kashima. Hopefully the round 34 tie in Ibaraki doesn’t feature any shenanigans from you-know-who in the Stags #40 jersey. A tough, but not insurmountable set of fixtures await, Gamba’s fate lies in their own hands, will they be good enough to haul themselves to safety or will they be sucked down to the depths of J2?

Keisuke Kurokawa – I’m a little late with this nugget of information due to my illness, but I thought it was worth sharing nonetheless. When questioned about Keisuke Kurokawa, Matsuda kantoku said he initially struggled to understand what type of player Kurokawa was and what his strengths and weaknesses were. This is likely the reason that he was absent for the 5-2 loss at Hiroshima, Matsuda’s first game in charge. However, upon further inspection on the training field, as well as perhaps observing that sadly Hiroki Fujiharu is no longer a J1 player (Gamba have 2 draws and 8 losses from the 10 J1 games Fujiharu has started this year), Matsuda realised what a quality player Kurokawa was and quickly re-called him to the starting lineup.

Rihito Yamamoto – With the on-field success of Yuki Yamamoto last weekend I thought this was a good chance to shine the spotlight on his midfield namesake, Rihito Yamamoto. With Meshino, Juan Alano and Musashi Suzuki all getting regular first-team minutes, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Gamba made a fourth summer signing in late July, that of Tokyo Verdy and Japan U-20 star Rihito Yamamoto. He actually joined with a small fracture in his foot and has been completing a rehabilitation program ever since, though with 5 matches remaining I’m somewhat doubtful that he’ll play at all this year. Through no fault of his own Yamamoto has become a pawn in Gamba’s transfer market madness. Take his position of central midfield, the Nerazzurri have basically played with two players in that role all season, yet on their books they have the 2 Yamamotos, Dawhan, Mitsuki Saito, Kohei Okuno and Shu Kurata who are all skilled in that area. What is the reason for amassing so many talented players, especially when all except Kurata are essentially only central-midfielders who can’t play effectively elsewhere? This is an issue that plagues the club in several positions around the field and in the wake of Tomohiro Katanosaka’s dismissal there was talk of bringing the front office and coaching departments closer together. In all honesty, the fact that this didn’t happen years ago is borne out in the club’s struggles in recent seasons. Those who don’t move with the times are destined to fail.

A word on referees – Last week against Tosu, referee Takafumi Mikuriya had a completely scattergun approach to what was and wasn’t a foul or booking. The somewhat infamous Yoshiro Imamura took charge of Gamba vs FC Tokyo and while he was more consistent, his strategy of don’t give anything in the first-half, but everything is a free-kick and yellow card after the break surely infuriated both sets of supporters in equal measure. There were definitely a few wild lunges going in from Gamba players as things got frantic towards the end, though once more I have to question how FC Tokyo’s Keigo Higashi managed to remain on the field for the full 90. After being rightly yellow carded for breaking up a dangerous counter attack, he then proceeded to grab the ball with his hands (a second yellow surely?) to prevent a quick re-start and then when Imamura had cleared away the scrum of players challenging for the ball, Higashi rolled over on his back and started blatantly wasting time by feigning injury (which should have been a third yellow in the space of a minute?). Anyway, I digress as it happened late on and wouldn’t really have made much difference to the final outcome. The other major incident during the match was Yasuki Kimoto’s challenge on Leandro Pereira as the striker bore down on goal in the 55th minute. At a first glance (and that’s all we got on DAZN, suspicious much?) I think it was a fair tackle by Kimoto, however, as fans we were left wondering, why no replays? Why no VAR check? They spend minute after minute analysing certain decisions in scientific detail, how could they have been so sure, so quickly that Kimoto hadn’t caught Pereira?

The battle of the Yuya’s, Fukuda vs Osako – 8 May 2020 Gamba Osaka are hosting Vissel Kobe at Panasonic Stadium, after 22 minutes Yuya Fukuda clumsily brings down Yuya Osako for a foul and receives a yellow card for his troubles. Veteran national team forward Osako is unimpressed with the challenge and seeks revenge. Four minutes later the opportunity presents itself, he trips Fukuda, but Gamba’s number 14 only stumbles so Osako properly kicks him to ensure he hits the ground. Osako levels up the yellow card count 1-1, but Fukuda falls awkwardly and dislocates his shoulder meaning he’ll miss almost 4 months of action. In the aftermath, young Jiro Nakamura gets into a scuffle with Osako and Gotoku Sakai over the forward’s refusal to check on the condition of his prone opponent, and in fairness to him he eventually did shuffle over for a token apology. Why am I going into so much detail about this? Well, it’s clear that while Osako in no way intended to injure Fukuda as badly as he did, his actions suggest he was trying to hurt a fellow professional to get even. Possibly because Fukuda is such a popular player among the Ao to Kuro faithful, I’ve heard opinions from Gamba supporters along the lines of, if Osako is in the Japan national team squad for the World Cup then I’ll only cheer for him grudgingly. So, should both Fukuda and Osako make it onto the Noevir Stadium turf on Sunday night I’m very interested to see what goes down.

Team News

The club announced one symptomatic Covid case on Tuesday 13 September, there were no close contacts within the squad. Other than that, the following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.

DF Genta Miura – Left the field with concussion against FC Tokyo last weekend following a clash of heads with Adailton. Was training separately from his team-mates as of Tuesday 13 September and must be a serious doubt for this fixture.

MF Rihito Yamamoto – Recovering from a minor fracture in his foot. He’s still just in light training, but should be good to go very soon, whether Matsuda chooses to utilise him is another issue entirely

FW Takashi Usami – The ‘Kobe Killer’ was seen in full training on Monday 12 September as he makes his way back from an achilles tendon rupture suffered in early March. He couldn’t return just in time to sink his old friends over in Hyogo again, could he?

Shu Kurata, Keisuke Kurokawa, Kosuke Onose and Mitsuki Saito are all just a single yellow card away from the one game suspension threshold of 4

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Vissel Kobe

Transfer windows are usually a busy time around the Noevir Stadium and this summer was no exception with 4 arrivals and 3 departures. Sagan Tosu wing-back Nanasei Iino, who has generally played in a more advanced role since joining, classy Brazilian centre-back Matheus Thuler (Flamengo) and Montenegrin international goal-getter Stefan Mugoša (Incheon United), all get the BlogGamba seal of approval. Replacing the departed Kento Hashimoto with Yuki Kobayashi less so, as I can’t quite get away from a comment I saw from a Gamba fan on Twitter which compared that deal with the Nerazzurri’s decision to replace Yosuke Ideguchi with Shinya Yajima in 2018, ie a bona fide international who could feature in the upcoming World Cup, leaving for Europe and his place being taken by a run-of-the-mill J1 player. Other than those moves, young Brazilian forward Lincoln has returned to his homeland, joining Cruzeiro on loan after a disappointing 18 month spell in Hyogo where he found the back of the net just once in 21 league outings. Additionally, Mitsuki Hidaka, someone who I bigged up in my preview for the match at Panasonic Stadium, has departed for lower league Spanish outfit Atlético Paso on loan, a strange switch, but I think he was desperate for a move to Europe no matter how it came about, so good luck to him. Next season, regardless of whether or not they’re in J1 or J2 I expect to see a new face in the dugout, and it certainly will make for fascinating viewing if Vissel do grace the second tier for the first time since 2013, what effect, if any, would that have on the Mikitani Rakuten project? That’s a question I can’t answer, but what I can tell you is that the Port Town Boys have already acquired 4 new faces ahead of the 2023 campaign. Defender Shogo Terasaka, midfielder Shuto Adachi and forward Niina Tominaga will all move up from the club’s impressive Under-18 side which has produced the likes of Yuki Kobayashi (defender), Daiju Sasaki and Yutaro Oda in recent years. Another former youth team product, winger Toya Izumi, rounds out the new arrivals and he will move back to Kobe once he graduates from Biwako Seikei Sport College in Shiga (alma mater of Riku and Riki Matsuda among others).

Team News

The following players are doubts for this fixture and / or have an important status announcement regarding their availability.

MF Andrés Iniesta – Has missed the last 3 league games plus the ACL loss to Jeonbuk and the Emperor’s Cup defeat at the hands of Kashima

MF Sergi Samper – Likely out for the rest of the year with a cruciate knee ligament injury. Was back in Spain receiving treatment, though he has subsequently returned to Japan to continue his rehabilitation.

FW Bojan Krkić – Has been out for 2 months with a knee injury, expected back sometime in October

FW Stefan Mugoša – Has missed the last 4 games (3 league and 1 Emperor’s Cup)

FW Yutaro Oda – Has missed the last 3 games (2 league and 1 Emperor’s Cup)

FW Yuya Osako – Went off vs Yokohama F. Marinos in the ACL and has since missed the loss to Jeonbuk plus 3 league matches and 1 Emperor’s Cup tie. According to his coach’s rather cryptic comments he could return on Sunday.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.


Gamba Osaka vs Vissel Kobe 8 May 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Vissel Kobe
2022 J1 Season Round 12
Sunday 8 May 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 14:00 (JST)

It’s Hanshin Derby time this weekend at Panasonic Stadium and while it might be a bit premature to attach the ‘relegation six-pointer’ tag to this fixture, it’s safe to say both Gamba and Vissel need to buck up their ideas sharpish. Jun Ichimori was the hero for the Nerazzurri on Wednesday as his penalty save from Gabriel Xavier on the stroke of half-time combined with poor Consadole finishing and sheer luck to earn the Ao to Kuro a share of the spoils and move them up to 13th in the standings. Sunday’s match marks Vissel’s return to J1 action after a 4 week hiatus while they played out their ACL Group Stage games in Thailand. It was a case of job done as they overcame Kitchee SC and Chiangrai United (who caused Gamba all sorts of trouble 12 months ago) to qualify for the knock-out rounds, but now new kantoku Miguel Ángel Lotina and his charges need to focus all their collective energies on bridging the 11 point gap that lies between themselves and safety.

Tale of the Tape

The stats suggest that Gamba should feel aggrieved not to have drawn their recent games with Shonan and FC Tokyo, and also by way of contrast a 3-1 defeat would have been a much fairer outcome versus Sapporo on Wednesday, but hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Walking down the steps of Panasonic Stadium at full-time after the Consadole match the thought crossed my mind, “I bet you Sapporo had fewer shots and a lower xG when they won 5-1 here last season” and lo-and-behold they racked up 20 (12 on target) shots amounting to an xG figure of 2.13 (Gamba’s was 1.98) in 2021 which compares with the 26 (17) efforts and xG For of 3.47 (2.72 not including their missed penalty) in the 0-0. I know this is meant to be the stats part, but let me digress just a touch. Before I came to Japan to work I knew I was going to be located either in Osaka or Sapporo. I was sent to Toyonaka (one of Gamba’s official hometowns) and the rest is history. However, sometimes I watch Consadole games and think about what they would have done to my blood pressure if I’d ended up making my home there and adopting them as my local team. With that trip down memory lane out of the way, let me get back to my favourite topic, expected goals. Sapporo’s xG total of 2.72 from open play lists 2nd in Gamba’s worst xG Against performance of 2022 rankings, only behind the opening day 3-1 loss at home to Kashima, who, of course, had 52 minutes of wrongly playing 11v10 to wrack up impressive numbers. At the other end of the field, the Nerazzurri are still struggling to click with no goals in their last 4 outings in all competitions, however, they have recorded xG For tallies in excess of 1 in 6 of their previous 8 J1 games (plus one 0.99). I feel both Katanosaka and I (if I may put the two of us together in the same sentence) have identified the same issues of the attackers in the squad not matching their new kantoku’s style and the injuries to Usami and Kurata are exacerbating this problem. I reckon it’s going to be a matter of nursing this wounded beast through to the summer transfer window before some corrective surgery is performed to hopefully get the show on the road once more.

Fresh from a best ever J1 finish of 3rd in 2021 (4 places above their previous highest), I wrote the following about Kobe in my 2022 J1 season preview “Things have never looked better in Kobe…there’s no reason to suggest Vissel won’t be there or thereabouts at the business end of the year,” well the less said about that particular piece of ‘analysis’ the better. Joking aside, the Noevir Stadium club have clearly underperformed markedly compared with what armchair pundits like myself and also many genuine experts felt was possible. Vissel are currently bottom of the standings having played 10 matches and possess the weakest attack (a mere 5 goals scored to date) plus the second most porous defence (16). Those numbers are a tad misleading as the non-ACL clubs all had games on Tuesday or Wednesday while Kobe were travelling home from the ACL, however, on Monday when everyone was on an even keel, the Men in Maroon were equal with Shonan and Fukuoka in terms of least goals scored (they’ve got quite a way to go to catch Avispa now) and were on their own with the worst defensive record in J1. They’ll be hopeful that defensive-minded Spanish coach Miguel Ángel Lotina, formerly of Tokyo Verdy, Cerezo and Shimizu is the man to fix their leaky rearguard while the return of Yoshinori Muto, who’s missed the bulk of the campaign to date with injury, should bolster their attacking options (though from a Gamba perspective, preferably not as quickly as Leandro’s return helped FC Tokyo last week). Well then, what has Señor Lotina let himself in for? As I mentioned above, 3rd in 2021 was Vissel’s highest ever placing in Japan’s top flight and while plenty of players shone brightly and results were good, a brief look through their performance data casts doubt on how sustainable last year’s run really was. Kobe’s best numbers unsurprisingly came in areas related to ball retention, completed passes per game sat at 459.1 (3rd in J1) and their average possession % figure of 54.9 saw them rank 4th in the division, however, in all of the other key metrics I use they came in somewhere between 5th and 11th. Further digging also reveals that they were the 2nd biggest overperformer in terms of xG For, netting 62 times in 38 outings from a combined xG of 47.46 (Gamba scored just 33 goals from a very similar xG, 45.26) while also ranking 5th in the xG Against overperformance charts, conceding 36 times despite opponents chalking up 42.51xG over the course of the season. It’s still relatively early days in the 2022 campaign, but perhaps, as was the case for Gamba post-2020, a few chickens are now coming home to roost. Vissel games this year to date have been more open than 12 months ago, their average xG score is 1.34-1.31 versus 1.25-1.12 in 2021 while Shots For Per game (on target) has increased from 10.9 (6.8) to 13.5 (8.3), but worryingly at the other end it’s gone from 10.8 (6.3) to 13.3 (8.6). Ball retention stats continue to be good with 471.2 passes being completed per match and the possession % figure sitting at 58.4. Lotina is a slightly (very?) puzzling appointment as he’s a coach with a philosophy and style of play that really doesn’t match what Vissel and Mr. Mikitani want at all, at least as far as I can see. In fairness, one of the criticisms I’ve seen levelled at previous kantoku Miura from Kobe supporters was that he had no plan A let alone a plan B, so let’s see what the wily Spaniard can do. I’m guessing his side are not going to come out quite as gung-ho as Sapporo did on Wednesday, though as you can see from my quote above, I’ve been wrong before.

Head to Head

“It’s a funny old game” is a clichéd expression often banded about British footballing circles and it perfectly encapsulates the past 2 seasons of Gamba vs Vissel matches. The Nerazzurri did the double over the Ushi in 2020 before being swept by their western neighbours last term, though in truth there wasn’t an awful lot separating the sides in any of those 4 encounters. Week 1 of the 2021 J1 campaign saw the duo battle it out at the Noevir Stadium and a cagey affair was settled by a lovely Kyogo Furuhashi dink from the edge of the box following a delicious through ball supplied by ex-Cerezo star Hotaru Yamaguchi. Gamba would have had a right to feel a touch non-plussed as they slightly shaded proceedings in Hyogo and they’d definitely have felt aggrieved to also taste defeat at the hands of Atsuhiro Miura’s troops in Suita in late July. Vissel became the first, and only, team to come from behind to see off the Ao to Kuro in J1 2021 thanks to two goals in the space of five first-half minutes from Douglas and Junya Tanaka which cancelled out Patric’s 19th minute opener. Gamba huffed and puffed as they went in search of an equaliser, but Kobe’s defence, superbly marshalled by Ryuho Kikuchi, stood firm to secure a 5th league win in 6 visits to Panasonic Stadium.

Gamba Osaka

* A lucky escape, two points dropped by Sapporo….cliché, cliché, cliché…yes, Wednesday wasn’t a great performance or a particularly impressive result, though psychologically it was important as Gamba had temporarily slipped into the bottom 3 owing to playing a day later than 12 of their fellow J1 sides. Perhaps inspired by spending a bit too much time in the sun today (Wednesday), I’d like to cover a couple of things I thought were worth sharing. First, not unsurprisingly, is the weather. I’m not sure just how well the DAZN pictures conveyed the deluge the players played through on Friday night and naturally TV isn’t really a medium built for letting you experience temperatures, but let me tell you it was warm on Wednesday and the game was contested at a break-neck speed for much of the 90 minutes, so in both fixtures the weather dictated the quality of the play to a certain extent. Secondly, I know we all watch a lot of football and want the best for our teams, but I think it’s important to try and remember that J1 clubs haven’t reached the standard of your average European Champions league contender, so it’s unfair to treat them like one. Gamba are missing key players in attack like Usami and Kurata, and injuries etc. affect other clubs too, whether it be defensively like Kawasaki (Jesiel, Noborizato), FC Tokyo (Morishige, Trevisan) or in attack such as Kobe (Muto), Urawa (Junker, Matsuo, Moberg). There’s no Middle Eastern royal family money lying around waiting to propel Japanese clubs into the stratosphere or a Pep Guardiola on hand to create the ultimate game-plan, however, the J League is beautiful too. Sure, it can be frustrating at times and players, coaches and clubs often do things that are unfathomable to many of us, but if every game was perfect, we’d have nothing to talk about, right?

* While I’m off setting the world to rights, here is an apology addressed to a Mr. Jun Ichimori….Hi Jun, I’m not sure if you’re a fan of the blog, but your performance against Sapporo was outstanding after I moaned about you wandering all over the place at the National Stadium. If Kwon Kyung-won can get a nickname like ‘Diego’, how about we call you ‘Bruce’ after old spaghetti-legs himself Bruce Grobbelaar.

* The GX18 penalty miss / Ichimori save – I’m a Gabriel Xavier fan so I’m not having a dig at him personally, but it is always just that touch more pleasing when a missed penalty comes about as a result of a player running, stopping, shimmying, shuffling, then finally running a bit more and shooting, isn’t it?

* Attacking conundrum – Gamba started against Sapporo with Jiro Nakamura playing off Leandro Pereira and Kosuke Onose (right) and Yuya Fukuda (left) flanking that duo. Pereira got hooked at half-time for Yamami as Katanosaka looked to operate almost as the away team for a bit and try to expose Consadole’s long-standing vulnerability to quick counter attacks. That experiment was binned after just 13 minutes when Patric replaced the tiring Nakamura and we were back to route one, which to be fair, worked best with Yanagisawa (twice), the aforementioned Patric and Wellington Silva squandering presentable openings. What will we see on Sunday? Honestly, I’m not really sure. I’ve had a stab below, but have pretty low confidence in my ability to read the mind of Katanosaka at the moment.

* In my last preview I mentioned a potential move for Ryotaro Meshino in the summer, but that got me thinking, despite having European experience, Meshino is by no means the finished article and would likely suffer from the same inconsistencies as Yamami, Nakamura, Fukuda etc. While Kurata’s return will help things, the Nerazzurri should also be looking for someone (potentially short-term) with good mileage on their tyres, realistically I’m talking about a Hiroyuki Abe or Manabu Saito from Nagoya… though if I can step into the realms of fantasy for a moment, how about a loan move for either Shoma Doi (Kashima) or Daiya Tono (Kawasaki)?

* Finally to some proper transfer news and looking resplendent in his suit on Wednesday it appears that long serving club mascot ‘Gamba Boy’ is moving upstairs, potentially to become ‘Director of Mascots’ or some other such fancy title. In his place comes a new, as yet, un-named character that if I’m honest looks like it should be on Sesame Street. As a 37 year old, I don’t think I’m particularly well placed to judge the quality of such things, but I’ve heard children describe it with words such as ‘kimoi’ (that’s not a Japanese word you want to hear if you’ve designed something with the purpose of it being popular with the public) and ‘Cookie Monster.’ However, as with many things in life once you get used to something, your feeling about it changes over time, so I’m sure that’ll be the case here too.

Team News

Influential trio Masaaki Higashiguchi (knee), Takashi Usami (achilles) and skipper Shu Kurata (calf) are all definite absentees for this clash. Higashiguchi could return at the end of this month, but it’s more likely he’ll be back for the match with Yokohama F. Marinos on June 18th which is also when we’re likely to see Kurata re-take the armband. Elsewhere, it appears both Yuki Yamamoto and Ryu Takao have injury problems, Yamamoto damaged something in his leg taking a free-kick versus Shonan on April 17 and Takao, a mainstay on the right-hand side of the defence in the early part of the campaign, hasn’t played seen since going off 12 minutes from the end of the 1-1 draw with Shimizu on April 10, though he was an unused sub the following week. In my last preview I said there had been speculation attacking midfielder Hideki Ishige had been dropped, however, it now appears he’s actually carrying an injury, though the nature of it hasn’t been disclosed yet.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Vissel Kobe

After a near 2 year period of relative stability in the port city of Kobe, Hiroshi Mikitani swung his axe abruptly to end the reign of one of his previously most trusted lieutenants Atsuhiro Miura, the man who had taken Vissel to their highest ever J1 placing of 3rd a matter of months before. I’ll acknowledge that as my xG stats in the ‘Tale of the Tape’ section above indicate, things did very much go their way in 2021, but I’d also argue it is far too simplistic to dismiss Miura as a poor coach or completely tactically inept. I have a soft spot for Kobe which is probably why I feel the need to be so critical about the decision to fire the most successful boss in their history 7 games after helping them finish 3rd. It seems the Ushi, or more specifically Mr. Mikitani, fell into the trap so many teams do of mistaking one good run of results, or one good season for being the new normal, when in fact it could just as easily be an aberration. Nevertheless, despite my ranting, Miura is gone and Miguel Ángel Lotina, who led Cerezo to 5th and 4th place finishes in 2019 and 2020 respectively before being released (clubs getting rid of coaches who achieve good results, but don’t play an aesthetically pleasing style of football is another genre of dismissal I may rant about in a future preview), so he clearly knows what he’s doing if he’s fully backed and allowed to implement his own style and ideas. Lotina mainly used 4-2-3-1 in the ACL which contrasted with the 4-4-2 diamond midfield system operated by Miura. With the likes of Hashimoto, Iniesta and Muto becoming available in the next few weeks it’ll be interesting to see how Vissel operate going forward, particularly because, as you can hear Sam and I discuss on Episode 408 of the J-Talk Podcast, some of their winter recruits (Yuruki and Ohgihara) aren’t well suited to a diamond set-up, though King of the Hill Iniesta definitely is. Kobe’s first item on the agenda upon returning from the ACL is quite simple and that is, like Gamba after their Covid shutdown 12 months ago, just by hook or by crook they need to get themselves out of the drop-zone as quickly as possible and build from that. Both these clubs were relegated together in 2012 and promoted back to the top flight a year later, neither want to repeat that experience anytime soon (though to be perfectly honest if that were to mean Gamba winning the treble in 2024 I’d have to consider it).

Finally, I’d like to shine a light on one of the lesser known talents in this Vissel Kobe squad and that is 18 year-old holding midfielder Mitsuki Hidaka. Signed on April 1st this year, I initially thought this was an April Fool’s joke, but sure enough the Aioi Gakuin High School graduate is a Vissel player. making his debut as a sub against Kitchee in the ACL and going on to play 134 minutes in total during the competition (1 start, 2 sub appearances). The youngster who cites his work-rate and ability to win the ball back as his strengths actually played for Gamba Juniors as an elementary school kid, but freely admits he grew up in Sakai (south Osaka) supporting Cerezo, so perhaps having Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ohgihara on the books (in addition to Iniesta, of course), helped Kobe secure his services. Further interesting information about Hidaka (well for me anyway), he is the first ever Aioi Gakuin graduate to sign for a J1 club (though his former team-mate Haruki Yamasaki is now with Alemannia Aachen U19 in Germany, a deal reportedly brokered by none other than Gert Engels who has been helping the sports program at Aioi get off the ground), the reason why being that their football program is a relatively new one run in conjunction with Kamimura Gakuen in Kagoshima. Apparently there have been a number of teething problems, but with the likes of Hidaka, Yamasaki and Eugene Fukui (Sanuki) earning pro deals this year, we can surely expect to see more future starlets come out of that particular institution over the next few seasons.

Team News

There are a few injuries of note to worry coach Lotina going into this clash. Andrés Iniesta didn’t travel with the squad to Thailand for the ACL and the reasons for his absence weren’t disclosed, but according to pictures posted on the club’s official Twitter account on 4 and 5 May he’s back training with team-mates and along with fellow returnee Yoshinori Muto should be good to go from the start on Sunday. Other than that, fan of the blog Sergi Samper is out with a long-term knee injury, rising star Daiju Sasaki has a hamstring complaint that’s likely to sideline him until next month and Noriaki Fujimoto has suffered an achilles injury similar to Usami and his season is probably done and dusted.

Predicted Lineups and Stats

Thanks for reading and enjoy the game whoever you are supporting.