Gamba Osaka vs Kyoto Sanga 30 July 2022 Match Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Kyoto Sanga
2022 J1 Season Round 23
Saturday 30 July 2022
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Kick Off: 19:00 (JST)

This Saturday marks the first of 12 remaining ‘cup ties’ for Gamba as they bid to save themselves from an inglorious drop down to the second tier. Covid-ravaged opponents Kyoto would appear to be made-to-order for Tomohiro Katanosaka’s beleaguered troops, but as we all know too well, if it’s predictability you’re after then Japanese football probably isn’t for you. The Nerazzurri last saw league action a fortnight ago in a gut-wrenching 2-1 home loss to prefectural rivals Cerezo, a game which marked the second time this year the Cherry Blossoms have come from behind to defeat their more well-decorated northern neighbours. Kyoto, on the other hand, earned a valuable point against fellow purple kit-wearers Hiroshima. Veteran forward Genki Omae was on hand to head home after Sanfrecce ‘keeper Keisuke Osako had misjudged a rather innocuous looking cross and that strike cancelled out Tsukasa Morishima’s opener for the visitors. The Royals did ride their luck though, when the referee chose not to overturn his decision of no penalty for Takuya Ogiwara’s apparent trip on Tomoya Fujii, despite being summoned over to the VAR booth for a second look. Since the round 22 fixtures took place there has been a 2 week hiatus in league action during which time Gamba have fitted in a glamour friendly against a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain side while Sanga have been laid low with Coronavirus, 11 players and 7 staff members being affected which led to team activities being halted from July 18th-24th. A home win here could possibly see the Ao to Kuro ease out of the bottom 3 and release some of the pressure that’s steadily been building around Katanosaka following a run of 1 win in 9 J1 matches. Meanwhile for Kyoto kantoku Cho Kwi-jae, after the tumultuous couple of weeks his side have endured, any positive result will surely suffice.

Tale of the Tape

Jean Patric’s last gasp winner in the Osaka Derby really was a dagger into the hearts of the Gamba-nation and was eerily reminiscent of Takuma Nishimura’s strike to earn Sendai a 3-2 victory at Panasonic Stadium last year and to a lesser extent Shoma Doi’s run and finish for Kashima in Ibaraki 12 months ago. Critics of Tomohiro Katanosaka will say that he’s done nothing to fix the Nerazzurri’s susceptibility to counter attacks during his tenure, and they’d have a point. Late fallaways in games have also hurt the Ao to Kuro badly, particularly during their hectic summer run. They’ve taken the lead in each of their past 4 home J1 fixtures against Yokohama F. Marinos, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Urawa Reds and Cerezo, but have emerged victorious on just one occasion. Gamba got a second soon after their opener against Sanfrecce and that killed the game off, had they bagged football’s most important goal, the one that takes the score from 1-0 to 2-0, against Urawa or Cerezo then neither of those two would have come back in my opinion, though you could argue that Marinos may have been able to eke out a draw. The Nerazzurri and their supporters must be hoping the two week break in league fixtures brings with it a change of luck in the wake of Kohei Okuno’s 7th minute ordering off versus Kawasaki and Jean Patric’s 0.05xG winner for the pink half of Osaka, incidents that are very much the kind of things that happen to teams in trouble. Looking in a more positive direction for a moment, Gamba answered my criticism over poor set-plays by netting their first goal from a corner all year against Cerezo. Ryuya Nishio and whoever is responsible for setting up the Cherry Blossoms’ zonal marking system certainly won’t want to see either Kwon Kyung-won’s initial effort which deflected off the bar or his powerful header from the resulting Hideki Ishige’s corner that sent the Curva Nord faithful into raptures, but this does neatly lead on to my point about the South Korean international’s effectiveness. During the former Seongnam stopper’s 876 minutes on the field in J1 this season, Gamba have conceded just 10 times (once every 87.6 minutes), but that number shoots up to a goal every 52.6 minutes when he’s not playing. The Nerazzurri simply can’t afford to lose him to injury again if they want to maintain their status as a J1 club in 2023. Kwon put in a generally solid display in the Osaka Derby, he went off with cramp prior to Cerezo’s late winner, however, he and Genta Miura both pushed up to play offside while Keisuke Kurokawa and Shota Fukuoka stayed back allowing Hiroto Yamada to slip through for the Cherry Blossoms’ equaliser. This conceded goal was disappointing from a Gamba perspective for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was nearly a carbon copy of Yokohama F. Marinos’ winner a few weeks back with the only difference being, on that occasion Hiroki Fujiharu was the sole culprit. This situation has come about due to the constant tinkering between a back 3 and back 4, something I’ve highlighted time and again in this blog. Vissel Kobe used to irritate me by doing that sort of thing and Yuji Ono’s opener for Gamba at the Noevir Stadium in 2020 should be sought out on YouTube if you’re looking for further evidence of the perils of messing around with your defensive shape on an almost weekly basis. All 4 goalkeepers used by Gamba this season have had a tough time trying to mop up the mess left in front of them and I’ve included a table below that compares some key stats between senior custodians Masaaki Higashiguchi and Jun Ichimori, I won’t say too much about it, I’d prefer to let you draw your own conclusions. At the moment, going forward things aren’t much better from a blue and black perspective. After 22 league games, the Nerazzurri’s joint top scorers are midfielders Dawhan and Kosuke Onose with just 3 goals apiece while Hideki Ishige and Leandro Pereira are the leading assist makers with 2 (Ishige has 2 in the last 2 home games). At present Hiroto Yamami’s 2.98 shots per 90 minutes is the highest figure among everyone at the club who has played 90 minutes or more, Musashi Suzuki, on debut, managed 3 attempts against Cerezo (4 if you include his wild shank in the first half that was incorrectly ruled offside) which is definitely a positive sign. Yamami was rested for the Osaka Derby with the double arrival of Suzuki and Ryotaro Meshino allowing him to take a night off following half a year of leading the Gamba attack. His 25 last passes is the best at the club, while his 32 shots on goal ties with Kosuke Onose as the top effort from a Gamba attacker.

Kyoto kantoku Cho Kwi-jae appears to strongly consider what he expects opponents to do prior to deciding his tactics and selecting his starting eleven for each match. However, with that said, up until their last outing at home to Sanfrecce, Kyoto had always kicked off in a 4-1-2-3 system (4-3-3 if you prefer) before attempting to match their highly-talented visitors from Hiroshima by lining up in a 3-4-2-1 shape. With Gamba constantly shifting between a back 3 and back 4 (much to the chagrin of me and many others), I’d bank on Cho reverting to the system he knows best in the face of such uncertainty, with only the personnel to fit the attacking midfield and wing roles up for debate (this sentence was written prior to news of Kyoto’s Covid outbreak reaching me, but once that passes it’ll still ring true, so I’ve left it in here). In a similar vein to Cho’s previous side, Shonan, Kyoto, as one of the smaller fish in the J1 pond, must make up for the absence of premium quality in their ranks with sheer grit and determination, and to that end they are currently averaging 35.7 more sprints per game than Gamba. Right-back Kosuke Shirai (a backup for most of their 2021 promotion campaign) leads the way with 606, which is a staggering 234 more than his nearest team-mate (perhaps not surprisingly left-back Takuya Ogiwara). Sanga’s xG for stats are generally on par in terms of number of goals scored, a phenomenon I’m tempted to christen, ‘the Utaka effect,’ but at the other end of the pitch they have massively overperformed defensively, which must be a worry for their coaching staff and fans alike. Taking all 22 fixtures into account, Sanga have conceded 7 times fewer than expected and a big chunk of that number (4.62) comes solely from opponents’ squandered opportunities in Royals’ away games. Should some of those chickens come home to roost on Saturday night then Gamba will be the gleeful recipients of a much needed change in fortunes. Any discussion about Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without mention of the man, the myth, the legend himself, Mr. Peter Utaka. I’m a mere 4 months younger than the 38 year-old goal machine and I get tired just watching games during the Japanese summer, yet Utaka put in three 90 minute appearances in the space of a week earlier this month, his stamina and endurance are frankly staggering. Currently lying 2nd in the J1 Golden Boot race, one strike behind man-of-the-moment Léo Ceará (Marinos) and the recently departed for Europe, Ayase Ueda (Kashima), it would be a fantastic story if he were to finish the campaign as top scorer (he was joint top in 2016). However, the downside to all of this is that perhaps the Royals depend on him a bit too much and any loss of form or fitness could bite them badly. His tally of 9 makes up 42.9% of Sanga’s yearly total, a percentage that sat at 35.6 last year, so if there is any spare cash floating around in Kameoka this summer then it might be wise to use it on a Utaka insurance policy. Away from the age defying veteran in attack, there are a plethora of young talents in this Kyoto squad and the two I’d briefly like to shine a light on are, holding midfielder Sota Kawasaki and centre-back / makeshift full-back Shogo Asada. Kawasaki is arguably the most talked about player in the team not called Utaka and despite a couple of niggling injuries he still sits in the top 10 in the division for tackles (51, 9th) and interceptions (6, 10th) which gives you a flavour of the defensive side of his game, though he is more than adept at going forward and linking up with his front 3, one goal plus 2 assists this campaign attest to that. The 27 fouls he’s given away in 17 appearances suggest plenty of youthful enthusiasm that I’m sure will be tamed over the coming years. Long term Twitter followers of mine will know I picked Shogo Asada out as a person of interest during Kyoto’s time in J2 and he’s made the step up with relative ease. He’s ranked 7th in the top flight for aerial battles won (61) and 9th for blocks made (53). As pointed out above, he started the season at left-back, before switching to his best position of centre-back, and it’s that spell out wide that likely accounts for his club leading 208.7 km distance covered as well as 363 sprints (that sees him rank 3rd behind his aforementioned team-mates Shirai and Ogiwara).

First Match Recap

April’s draw at Sanga Stadium by Kyocera saw both Kyoto and Gamba leaving with a point, but probably feeling like they could, and should, have gotten more. Fresh from an impressive 3-1 home win over Nagoya the previous weekend, the Nerazzurri were the brighter of the two teams early doors, but couldn’t make their dominance pay and were punished by Sanga talisman Peter Utaka right at the end of the first-half. They needn’t have worried too much though, as the home team’s lead lasted just 13 minutes before Dawhan’s powerful low volley squared things up. It was the Brazilian’s first strike for his new club and it went on to win J1’s April Goal of the Month Competition. Youngsters Isa Sakamoto and Jiro Nakamura were introduced during the second period, and Sakamoto almost had a dream J1 debut as his lovely weighted pass put Kosuke Onose clean through on Naoto Kamifukumoto’s goal, however, with the Sanga ‘keeper bearing down on him Onose poked the ball just wide. After that the home side rallied and the Ao to Kuro were left holding on for dear life during a final ten minute siege that culminated with substitute Mendes firing off target with the goal at his mercy in stoppage time. It finished 1-1 and both sides will have a sense of unfinished business as we approach the return fixture.

Gamba Osaka

Gamba went down 6-2 to Paris Saint-Germain in their friendly match played out in sweltering conditions at Panasonic Stadium on Monday night. The visitors sauntered into the break 4-1 up courtesy of goals from Pablo Sarabia, Nuno Mendes, Lionel Messi and a hugely controversial Neymar spot kick. Keisuke Kurokawa grabbed the Nerazzurri’s consolation and potentially alerted European scouts to his abilities with a decent first-half showing while guardian deity Masaaki Higashiguchi played like a man possessed to prevent an even more one-sided outcome. The 38,251 fans in attendance were treated to a generally slower paced second period which began with the home side making 7 changes with 1 ½ eyes on the important match against Kyoto this Saturday. Neymar made it 5-1 on the hour mark before Hiroto Yamami pulled one back from close range 10 minutes later. Substitute Kylian Mbappé (not a bad player to have on the bench, is he?) wrapped up the scoring from penalty spot near the end after being clearly upended by Ryu Takao. I’m recording a Patreon exclusive podcast with Jon Steele this Friday (29 July) where we’ll discuss PSG’s Japan tour in detail, look out for that next week!

It has now been confirmed that 2021/2022 Europa League champions Eintracht Frankfurt will come to Japan for a short tour in November just prior to the FIFA Men’s World Cup kicking off in Qatar. Makoto Hasebe is a legend at both Frankfurt and Urawa making the Saitama side a natural opponent (on November 16) while Daichi Kamada spent time in Gamba’s youth set-up which may explain why they’ve been chosen above the likes of Cerezo and Vissel for the West Japan leg of the tour. The match against the Nerazzurri will take place at Panasonic Stadium on Saturday 19 November.

A word on attendances – It was interesting to note that in the midst of Japan’s 7th Corona wave the turnout for the Panasonic Stadium leg of the Osaka Derby was just 22,531. This compares with 35,861 back in 2019, the last time it was played under normal circumstances. The Hanshin Derby against Vissel Kobe in Golden Week brought in just under 4,000 more paying spectators and the 26,490 attendance that day is the Nerazzurri’s best Covid-era figure. Unlike previous Osaka Derbies, steps taken by both clubs served to kill off any particularly bad behaviour, much to the disappointment of those who’d have been delighted had there been any hint of crowd trouble.

Transfer Round Up – On 24 July Gamba announced the capture of impressive young Japan U-23 international Rihito Yamamoto from Tokyo Verdy for a reported fee of €700,000. Yamamoto can play either as the anchor in a midfield 3 or in a double-volante system as he did successfully alongside former Verdy team-mate Joel Chima Fujita at the recent AFC Under-23 Cup. To date he has 104 J2 appearance and 3 goals to his name and of the midfielders currently on the books in Suita, his playing style most closely resembles that of Kohei Okuno. There had been strong rumours linking Gen Shoji with a return to his former side Kashima and these grew stronger after Shoji was the featured face on the starting eleven graphic for the game with Paris Saint-Germain as well as being the only Gamba player to go the full 90 against the French giants. However, the following day (26 July) speculation began to mount over an Antlers move for Vissel Kobe’s versatile defender Leo Osaki which, if true, would likely render any Shoji deal dead in the water. Leandro Pereira’s future in Suita remains up for debate with Júbilo Iwata suggested as a possible destination. Recalled to the enlarged 23 man matchday squad on Monday, Pereira cut a disinterested figure in the pre-game warm up, but gave a decent account of himself after replacing Musashi Suzuki at half-time. Other than that there’s not a whole lot to report other than Sports Hochi journalists Kanagawa and Uchida held a Twitter Spaces chat on Tuesday (26 July) and it was revealed there that Gamba are still pursuing new targets, but talks are not far enough advanced to publish the names of the players involved.

Random application of how much time to add on at the end of a game rant no. 328 – I’ve had a week off so I went back and did the maths, Jean Patric’s Osaka Derby winner came with 89:45 on the clock, it was followed by 1 minute 25 seconds of Cerezo celebrating and then making a time wasting substitution, absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. However, referee Ryuji Sato only added on a whopping 5 seconds to the initially awarded 5 minutes to make up for the break in play. Again, just as in the 1-0 loss to Shonan, there’s little doubt in my mind that Gamba would still have failed to score even if the extra time was played out, so my point is merely that I’d just rather we got a fairer application of the rules.

Any Gamba fans waking up to an Osaka Derby induced bout of nausea on Sunday 17 July were given some light relief in the shape of the club’s Under 18’s romping past Cerezo 3-0 in their Prince Takamado Cup West Division clash. A double from high school second-grader Renko Hikasa after Harumi Minamino’s early opener sent the Ao to Kuro on their way to only a second win of the campaign. After being struck down with Covid issues earlier in the year, Gamba Youth, like their senior counterparts face an uphill battle to remain in their division, but this result will give them a huge boost. Also of note was the presence in the matchday squad of Futa Endo, son of Yasuhito, as well as Haruta Yamaguchi, son of current Shonan boss Satoshi.

Team News

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 in August at the earliest

DF Kwon Kyung-won – Played 180 minutes for South Korea during the EAFF Cup including the whole game in the 3-0 loss to Japan on Wednesday. He has been struggling with cramp in recent outings and may not be risked as a result.

MF Yuya Fukuda – Underwent shoulder surgery in May, shown jogging on the club’s official YouTube channel on 8 July, potentially back in August

MF Rihito Yamamoto – It was announced today (28 July) that he had fractured his foot in a league match against FC Ryukyu at the beginning of July. He was seen walking unaided at the PSG game so it can’t be too serious and the club have said it will take about a month for him to recover.

MF Yuki Yamamoto – Knee cartilage injury, shown jogging with Fukuda on the club’s official YouTube channel so the problem may not be as bad as first feared

FW Isa Sakamoto – Sat out the match with PSG on Monday, presumably with a minor injury

FW Takashi Usami – Ruptured achilles tendon, likely out for the majority of 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

Kyoto Sanga

After what the majority of observers labelled a mediocre winter transfer window, it’s fair to say that not a whole lot was expected from Kyoto prior to the commencement of the 2022 campaign, mere survival in their first year back in Japan’s top flight since 2010 would surely be treated as a success, many thought. However, as newly promoted sides tend to do, they made a bright start to life in J1, earning 4 wins and picking up 15 points from their opening 10 fixtures. Though, from that point onwards they’ve found things pretty tough, going on a run of 2 wins, 3 draws and 7 losses across their subsequent 12 outings in which they failed to score 5 times and kept just a solitary clean sheet. With only 12 matchdays remaining, Kyoto really need a spark from somewhere to lift them out of their present rut or they’re soon going to find themselves mired in the relegation dogfight. It has to be said that their trip to Júbilo Iwata in round 34 already has all the hallmarks of a rather tasty bout filled with last day drama. To put a more positive spin on proceedings, Cho is an excellent manager to have in this kind of situation, he’s been there before with Shonan and he knows what he’s doing. I’ve no doubt he’ll have his players organised, motivated and ready to do battle until the last minute of the last game of the season. Sitting 4 points above Gamba, who presently occupy the promotion / relegation playoff spot, the match situation is clear, the Nerazzurri need a win, Sanga only really require to avoid defeat. Will Cho stick or twist? I’d say he’ll follow the template of former club Shonan, who’ve already notched up 1-0 home and away victories over the Ao to Kuro thanks to a strategy aimed at frustrating Gamba early doors and knocking them out of their stride before striking decisively on the break. Perhaps Genki Omae is the man for that decisive strike, he certainly was in their previous match against Hiroshima, and he was one of 11 new additions prior to the start of the season. However, almost 2/3 of the way through the campaign I’d argue that only really, ‘keeper Naoto Kamifukumoto has equalled or exceeded expectations. Rikito Inoue, someone who I picked out in my Scouting J2 article last autumn can’t seem to dislodge Hisashi Appiah Tawiah from the starting centre-back role for reasons known only to Cho. Appiah Tawiah has picked up 7 yellow cards in 17 J1 appearances in 2022 and now has a disciplinary record of 16 cautions and 1 red in 52 J1 outings, the Japanese Richardson? Elsewhere, Daiki Kaneko and Kiwi ‘keeper Michael Woud are maybe the only additions who haven’t quite done as well as I thought they might, which is to say, I didn’t think much of their winter business was that great in the first place. I feel like I’m being a bit negative and Kyoto’s a lovely place, especially Arashiyama, a few train stops down the track from Sanga’s wonderful new stadium, so let’s finish this section on something of a high note by name-dropping a couple of promising youngsters. Wingers Fuki Yamada (a Japan U-23 representative) and 19 year-old Keita Nakano offer a glimpse into a bright future for the Royals, but for the next 3 ½ months at least, it’s shaping up to be squeaky bum time in Kameoka.

Team News

**Note – 11 players were struck down with Covid and club activities were shut down from 18-24 July so basically expect the unexpected from Kyoto. As we don’t know who was and wasn’t infected I’ve just gone for their strongest eleven, but that’s likely to differ a fair bit from their actual starting lineup on Saturday night.**

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

MF Alan Carius – Joined the club on a permanent deal from Saudi Arabian side Al-Adalah on Tuesday (26 July), but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to feature on Saturday.

MF Naoto Misawa – Achilles tendon rupture similar to Usami, likely to miss the majority of the season

MF Fuki Yamada – Went off in 2nd half of Emperor’s Cup win away to Tochigi SC on 13 July and was missing from the matchday squad for the 1-1 draw with Hiroshima on 17 July

Predicted Lineups and Stats

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


Kyoto Sanga vs Gamba Osaka 6 April 2022 Match Preview

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.

Gamba Osaka

* 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!

Team News

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

Kyoto Sanga

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.

Team News

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.