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Shimizu S-Pulse Match Preview 12 July 2020

Shimizu S-Pulse vs Gamba Osaka
J1 2020 Round 4
IAI Stadium Nihondaira
Sunday 12 July 18:00 (JST)


It’s round 4 of J1 2020 as Gamba travel to Shizuoka to take on Shimizu S-Pulse. It will be the first time since February that supporters, 5,000 of them, will be allowed inside the stadium. Hopefully this preview gives you all the information you’re looking for ahead of this intriguing clash.

Last Time Out

Gamba played out a scrappy 2-2 draw away at Nagoya Grampus on Wednesday night. The starting XI saw four changes from the Osaka derby, with Ryu Takao taking Shunya Suganuma’s place to give Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon a fourth centre-back partner in four games. Veteran Yasuhito Endo was unsurprisingly rested and Shinya Yajima dropped back to the holding role with Yosuke Ideguchi and Yuji Ono lining up in more attacking positions, Ono replaced Shu Kurata, who like Endo started on the bench. The final change saw the fit-again Yuya Fukuda replace the rested Hiroki Fujiharu down the left-flank.

The result and scoring pattern followed the 2019 matchup between these two exactly. Gamba drew first blood in the sixth minute when Takashi Usami’s free-kick from the left was flicked onto his own crossbar by Yutaka Yoshida, the ball then broke loose in the penalty area, Takao attempted a shot which was blocked into the path of his captain Miura whose effort was also deflected this time over Mitch Langerak in the Grampus goal, off the underside of the bar and in.

Nagoya bounced back quickly and Miura undid a lot of his good work for the opener in the lead up to Grampus’ equaliser. A free-kick by Gabriel Xavier from a similar position to Usami’s saw Ademilson head the ball straight up in the air in his own six-yard box, it luckily broke for Miura to head away but he could only find the boot of Sho Inagaki who guided it to the tricky Mateus, he spun past Miura and fired home. Fifteen minutes later, gamba were caught cold just after the drinks break, a fine counter down the right saw Mateus centre for Mu Kanazaki whose deft back heel fed Gabriel Xavier, the wily Brazilian turned Takao and scored at the second attempt after Masaaki Higashiguchi’s fine initial save.

Grampus led 2-1 at half time and were content to sit back and soak up Gamba pressure in the second half while making occasional forays forward in the form of counter attacks. This strategy looked like it would pay dividends until the 92nd minute when Kim Young-gwon’s long diagonal ball found substitute Patric who headed down for fellow replacement Kazuma Watanabe, he took a touch on his chest before coolly placing his volley low beyond Langerak, Nagoya 2-2 Gamba.

Nagoya Grampus 2-2 Gamba Osaka
8 July 2020

Shimizu went down to their third straight loss of the year against Cerezo Osaka at Nagai Stadium in midweek. Although S-Pulse put up a decent fight the result was ultimately a quite comfortable 2-0 defeat. Yusuke Maruhashi, tormentor of Gamba in the derby, picked up his second assist of the week, as his driving run right at the heart of the Shimizu defence culminated in a pass to Hiroaki Okuno who beat the offside trap and fired the ball past young Togo Umeda in the 71st minute. It was just five minutes from full-time when the Cherry Blossoms wrapped things up, captain Hiroshi Kiyotake, who’d come on as a second half substitute played a lovely ball through to another replacement Yuta Toyokawa who arrived at the ball the same time as the onrushing Umeda, due to the slippery nature of the surface the ball squirmed out straight to the approaching Eiichi Katayama and he produced a neat finish to end the game as a contest.

Cerezo Osaka 2-0 Shimizu S-Pulse
8 July 2020


Recent History

There have been six J1 matches between these two since Shimizu won promotion back to the top flight in 2017, Gamba have won each of the past three, but S-Pulse were undefeated in the previous encounters.

2019 saw Gamba do the double over the men from Shizuoka, one of only two sides they achieved this against, the other being Shonan Bellmare. Week 2 of the season in early March was the first of the two games and Gamba ran out comfortable 4-2 winners at the Nihondaira Stadium. Keito Nakamura fired S-Pulse into an early lead which was then cancelled out by Kosuke Onose before the interval. An Ademilson strike and a Hwang Ui-jo brace all within the space of fifteen second-half minutes put Gamba on easy street meaning Yuta Taki’s very late consolation was in vain. The return match in Suita was far less eventful with Shinya Yajima’s low drive two minutes from time all that separated the sides.

One year earlier it was S-Pulse who ended the short reign of Levir Culpi as Gamba head-coach with Koya Kitagawa’s penalty and a thumping header from Douglas giving them a comfortable lead. Hwang Ui-jo gave the Nerrazzurri hope with a nice effort fifteen minutes from the end and Koki Yonekura really should have tied things up at the death but he sent his header wide and Culpi was jettisoned before the following match. A Tsuneyasu Miyamoto inspired Gamba then reversed that scoreline in game three of their incredible nine match winning run towards the end of of the 2018 campaign as Hwang’s first half double ensured the three points would head back to Kansai despite Kitagawa’s late effort giving Shimizu some hope.

Tactical Notes

In general Gamba looked better against Nagoya than versus Cerezo though a large part of that can be put down to the fact that Cerezo are a stronger unit than Grampus. Playing Shinya Yajima as opposed to Yasuhito Endo as the deepest midfielder offers better protection for the centre-backs, however this comes at the cost of losing out on Endo’s immense passing ability. Yajima and Yosuke Ideguchi combined well as a double volante when Grampus were in possession on Wednesday and the goals conceded were more a result of individual errors than team structure.

Going forward Gamba’s attack seemed a little lethargic at times, the high press and closing down was more effective than against Cerezo and this took a toll on Usami, Ademilson and Ono who were all hauled off just after the hour mark. In future games, starting with this one against S-Pulse I’d like to see a bit more invention and quick passing as opposed to what’s been seen in the previous two games where there has been an over-reliance on long passes and individual brilliance to create chances.

Shimizu are a fascinating case study, new head-coach Peter Cklamovski has set them up in exactly the same formation as his former Yokohama F.Marinos, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 depending on your preference. The main flaw is that as yet he does not yet possess the quality of player to carry out the philosophy he’s trying to implement. Their back four is one of the weakest in the league and there are two many attacking players in the midfield for a team that is incapable of keeping possession for long periods. The only game of theirs I’ve watched in full was against Nagoya Grampus and they had particular problems down the left side of defence as Carlinhos Junior was playing as a winger but offered almost zero protection for left-back Ryo Okui and indeed both Nagoya goals came from his defensive zone. The fact that Shimizu have played three different players at left-back in three league games and none of them are naturals in that position will give Gamba a great deal of hope.

Gamba will look to press Shimizu’s shaky back line and force mistakes while also exploiting the lack of cover afforded to their wide defenders. In turn, S-Pulse will have seen the success Cerezo and Grampus have had at taking advantage of Gamba’s susceptibility to counter attacks and issues with dealing with decent balls into the box and take confidence from that.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Gen Shoji is still a doubt with an ankle problem that will need to be managed carefully while reserve goalie Jun Ichimori is out until September at the earliest. Captain Genta Miura was subbed late on against Nagoya as a precaution and could be rested for this one. Attacking midfielder Yuji Ono fractured a bone in his face in the Osaka derby but played without a mask in the Nagoya match so should be good to go. One piece of transfer news that was announced on Thursday, South Korean full-back Oh Jae-suk officially ended his eight year relationship with the club when he joined Nagoya Grampus.

Shimizu S-Pulse

S-Pulse don’t have their injury troubles to seek especially in the goalkeeping area where Brazilian first-choice Neto Volpi and the experienced Yohei Nishibe are both out while Takuo Okubo, a mid-2019 signing from Sagan Tosu is just back and has been on the bench in the previous two matches. Further forward, Hideki Ishige, a winger Cklamovski had been trying to convert to a full-back is out with a hamstring injury after knee trouble saw him miss most of 2019. Central midfielder Yosuke Kawai is another missing with a hamstring problem, I wonder if it’s got anything to do with the new training methods? The Brazilian duo of Elsinho and Renato Augusto haven’t played yet in 2020 after picking up injuries, as yet I’m unsure when either will return.

Know Your OpponentShimizu S-Pulse

Compared with Cerezo and Nagoya in the previous rounds, trying to guess who’ll start for S-Pulse on Sunday is much more of a lottery. Cklamovski is using this relegation free season to experiment with tactics and players and thus far I’ve only been able to identify four players who I believe are first choice core starters, Valdo, Takeuchi, Okazaki and Kaneko.

GK – #31 Togo Umeda – Soon-to-be 20 year-old who has been thrown in the deep end following Shimizu’s goalkeeping crisis and has done pretty well considering. At 184cm he’s a bit smaller than some of his rivals, but his continued inclusion in the starting line-up is the kind of thing Japanese football fans in general will surely be in favour of in this chaotic 2020 season.

RB – #15 Takashi Kanai – Rugged defender who can play anywhere along the back four if necessary. I’m honestly a little surprised to see him playing for S-Pulse as Ange Postecoglou deemed him surplus to requirements pretty quickly after arriving in Yokohama. Has a decent knack of scoring, with ten goals in his last two seasons, but he’s also something of a journeyman who’s now at his fifth different professional club.

CB – #5 Valdo – Brazilian centre-back who joined from Ceara last winter and has had a difficult start to life in Japan. After S-Pulse’s five goal drubbing by Kawasaki Frontale, I wondered if he was going to be another Wanderson, but he looks to have a bit more about him than last season’s flop. He is a decent threat from set pieces, though when defending he does seem to be around trouble rather often as shown in his own goal mix up with Togo Umeda against Nagoya.

CB – #3 Hwang Seok-ho – In my books he’s S-Pulse’s best centre-back and I’ve no idea why they broke up the successful partnership he had with Freire in 2018. That said, I’m not sure the ex-Hiroshima and Kashima man is really a Cklamovski type of player and I can see him heading for fresh pastures in the not too distant future.

LB – #21 Ryo Okui – Another off-season capture, this time from Omiya Ardija in J2. Former Gamba Junior Youth player Okui is more often found at right-back, but may be forced to play on the left due to injuries.

DM – #24 Makoto Okazaki – Highly rated youngster on-loan from FC Tokyo and converted into a holding midfielder by his new Australian coach. He’s performed reasonably well in trying circumstances so far. It’ll be interesting to see if he moves back to centre-back when the likes of Renato Augusto and Yosuke Kawai regain full fitness.

DM – #6 Ryo Takeuchi © – The vastly experienced Takeuchi has been a safe pair of hands in the S-Pulse midfield for a number of years now and the Shizuoka native is seen as a central figure in the Cklamovski revolution. One of the few Shimizu players who can be confident of his place at the moment.

RW – #30 Shota Kaneko – One of the S-Pulse players I enjoy watching most, he got a nice goal against Nagoya and offers more defensively than his competitors for this position. His output was considerably down last season with just one goal and five assists compared to the excellent year he had in 2018 when he produced an outstanding ten goals and seven assists.

AM – #14 Yusuke Goto – Nuggety little player brought in from Oita Trinita last winter after not really getting the amount of opportunities his talent may have warranted in Kyushu in 2019. He can either play as a central striker or just off the front and will be effective in either role even if he doesn’t bring the same goal scoring threat Douglas did last campaign.

LW – #16 Kenta Nishizawa – The great hope in this Shimizu squad, he enjoyed a breakout 2019 in his first year as a pro after joining from Tsukuba University. He contributed seven goals and three assists in just twenty three J1 games and will be thirsty for more this year in the face of stiffer competition for a starting spot.

CF – #23 Teerasil Dangda – Thai international who is yet another recent recruit, this time from Muangthong United in his homeland. He has one year of J1 experience where he netted six times in thirty two matches for Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2018, but despite scoring a fine goal against FC Tokyo in round one of this campaign he faces an uphill task to match the feats of the now departed Douglas.

Other options – If Shimizu are not happy with how Umeda is performing they do now have the option of replacing him with fit-again Takuo Okubo while in defence Yugo Tatsuta, a youngster who had a decent 2018 as a right-back but has never really done as well in his more favoured centre-back role is definitely in contention for a start. Mitsunari Musaka, more commonly a central midfielder played at left back against Cerezo and could feature again while another player to find himself in a new role this year, Keita Nakamura is a central midfield option as are two loan returnees, Kota Miyamoto and Yasufumi Nishimura. In attack a lot of players have been rotated in recent games so it’s highly possible we could see former Funabashi Municipal High School attacking midfielder Yuito Suzuki, Brazilian wingers Junior Dutra and Carlinhos Junior or even the veteran North Korean forward Chong Tese make a starting appearance.

Predicted Lineups

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Match Prediction

Gamba have failed to really spark in their two post lockdown games, but this match against what must be considered one of the four weakest teams in J1 at the moment surely offers up a great chance to get three points. As I said on the J-Talk Pod a few weeks back, playing S-Pulse early on is definitely to our advantage as they’ll surely improve under Cklamovski as the season progresses. I’ll go for a tight 2-1 Gamba win.


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Osaka Derby Preview

Gamba Osaka vs Cerezo Osaka
J1 2020 Round 2
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Saturday 4 July 18:00 (JST)


Gamba recommence their 2020 J1 campaign against city rivals Cerezo a full 132 days since they last took the field competitively, away to Yokohama F.Marinos. The Nerazzurri of course famously upstaged the defending champion Marinos 2-1 on that occasion with a goal and an assist each for attacking midfield duo, Shu Kurata and Shinya Yajima.

Yokohama F.Marinos 1-2 Gamba Osaka
23 February 2020


A day earlier at Nagai Stadium, Cerezo ground out a 1-0 win over a determined Oita side. It was the kind of gritty, unspectacular but ultimately successful performance that they have become known for under pragmatic Spanish head-coach Miguel Angel Lotina.

Cerezo Osaka 1-0 Oita Trinita
22 February 2020

Head-to-Head

There have been 18 league fixtures played between these sides on Gamba’s turf, both the first meeting back in 1995 and the latest last May finished 1-0 to the home side. Cerezo have an extremely poor record in away league derby matches with their last win being a 2-0 triumph way back in 2003. A lot has changed since then and at present the overall standings have Gamba way ahead with 14 wins, Cerezo have 3 and there’s been 1 draw, 2-2 back in 2012. That solitary point against a Gamba side which would go on to be relegated is the only time in the previous 9 encounters in Suita that Cerezo haven’t left empty handed.

The 2018 and 2019 clashes provide potential clues to what we will see in this game. The scoreline in both was 1-0 to Gamba, Hwang Ui-jo’s penalty kick settling things in 2018 and Shu Kurata’s fine strike at the end of a wonderful team move proving to be decisive last year.

Gamba 1-0 Cerezo
18 May 2019
Gamba 1-0 Cerezo
21 April 2018

Team News

Gamba Osaka

In the 4 month break, Kim Young-gwon went down with a dislocated shoulder and Takashi Usami suffered a relatively innocuous leg muscle injury, however, both players appear to be ready to go now. The enforced gap between matches has allowed last season’s top scorer Ademilson (10 goals, 8 assists in 32 appearances) to regain full fitness, however, winter signing from Toulouse, Gen Shoji, has a minor foot injury and seems set to miss out with an eye on the coming fixture deluge. Elsewhere, backup goalkeeper Jun Ichimori, another off-season recruit from Fagiano Okayama, also dislocated his left shoulder and is expected back in September, former Tosu stopper Kei Ishikawa should take his place on the bench.

Gamba Player To Watch

Yasuhito Endo
Mr Gamba is all set to break the J1 appearance record he currently holds with his former national team colleague, Seigo Narazaki (631 games) and where better to do it than in a derby. The now 40-year old playmaker was in imperious form as Gamba upset Yokohama F.Marinos in their own back yard in February and although the epic nature of this season’s fixture list means that veterans like Yatto are likely to play less, I’m confident he’ll start this one. How he and central midfield partner Yosuke Ideguchi fare against their more defence minded opponents will sure have a massive effect on the final scoreline.

Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo had the best defence in J1 last season, conceding a mere 25 goals in 34 games (by contrast Gamba let in 48), and they also tied with Kashima Antlers for the most clean sheets in the league (15). As such they line up in a defensively oriented 4-4-2 formation.

Goalkeeper – #21 Kim Jin-hyeon – A one club man, the 192cm South Korean stopper has been Cerezo’s first choice between the sticks almost exclusively since making his debut back in 2009. He’s definitely one of the best in J1 and will provide a formidable obstacle for Gamba to pass on Saturday night.

Right-back – #2 Riku Matsuda – Solid, but unspectacular full back who has owned his position on the right side of the defence basically unchallenged since joining from FC Tokyo in 2016. He helped Cerezo win promotion back to J1 in his first season and has since made 94 appearances in the top league.

Left-back – #14 Yusuke Maruhashi – A player who really caught my eye the first time I took in a JLeague game live (Cerezo 2-2 Urawa back in 2013), age and the more defensive approach of Coach Lotina have seen him curb his attacking instincts somewhat in recent years. With that said, Maruhashi, a fine crosser of the ball and decent penalty taker has helped himself to 9 goals and 17 assists across the past 3 years in J1.

Centre-back – #22 Matej Jonjic – The Croatian has been a colossus at the back for Cerezo since moving from Incheon United back in 2017. Please read his interview in the latest edition of JSoccer Magazine (if you haven’t already), and you’ll see that he is one of the main reasons why Cerezo have been so hard to break down in recent seasons.

Centre-back – #15 Ayumu Seko – There are high hopes for Seko around Nagai Stadium and the 20 year-old looks like he could be the latest Europe-bound player off their famous production line. After initially cutting his teeth with the U-23 side in J3 he began to play semi-regularly last year and now appears to have won the battle to partner Jonjic at the heart of the defence.

Centre-midfield – #6 Leandro Desabato – Argentine holding midfielder who is very much a Lotina type player. He featured 18 times in J1 last time out and although I’m sure neutral fans would much prefer to see the enigmatic, now-departed Souza in the Cerezo engine room, Desabato appears to tick all the boxes his Spanish coach wants.

Centre-midfield – #3 Yasuki Kimoto – Having spent most of his senior career as a centre-back, the development of Seko appears to have hastened his switch from part-time defensive midfielder into a full-time role. Honestly, Kimoto and Desabato are not my idea of a dream central-midfield partnership, but defence is a team game and having these two protecting the back four will surely be one of the main reasons why Cerezo maintain their strong defensive record this year.

Right-wing – #17 Tatsuhiro Sakamoto – The off-season capture from Montedio Yamagata is one of the players I’m most looking forward to seeing for the Cherry Blossoms this campaign (obviously I hope he does nothing in this game!) He’s taken over from Kota Mizanuma, who took his 7 goals and 2 assists with him to Yokohama F.Marinos, however Sakamoto showed last year in J2 that he knows where the back of the net is, scoring 7 times and bagging 3 assists. He’s shown up well in his couple of outings earlier this year and should be a decent option down the right flank.

Left-wing – #10 Hiroshi Kiyotake – Cerezo’s danger man, I was under the impression that recently he’d been injured more than he actually had, he made 27 appearances in J1 last year, though his output was definitely down on previous years, only 1 goal and 3 assists. Despite that, he is a highly experienced technician who knows how to unlock defences and will need to be keenly watched on Saturday night.

Centre-forward – #20 Bruno Mendes – Physical Brazilian striker who is now into the second year of a loan-spell. He clearly did enough to impress his coaching staff last year, his hold up play and physical strength are his strong points, though I’m sure he’d love to improve on his scoring stats from 2019 when he netted 6 times in 24 J1 games.

Centre-forward – #25 Hiroaki Okuno – Having previously been more of an attacking midfielder, Okuno found a home as a centre-forward after moving to Osaka from Vegalta Sendai last season. He tied with Kota Mizanuma as Cerezo’s top scorer on 7 goals and this included a beautiful volley in the one live Cerezo game I took in (1-2 vs Tosu in August). He is a tricky player who compliments his more aggressive attacking partner well.

Other Options – Cerezo have one of the biggest squads in J1 this year, though how much depth they have is up for debate. One option to change things up would be to bench Seko, drop Kimoto in alongside Jonjic and play either the experienced Naoyuki Fujita or new Brazilian signing Lucas Mineiro next to Leandro Desabato. Club legend Yoichiro Kakitani is an option on the wing or in attack, even if his 2013 scoring days are long since departed. Daisuke Takagi’s older brother Toshiyuki is another option, although Lotina doesn’t seem to fancy him much and he had a recent injury. Ken Tokura is now back after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, and he along with ex FC Ryukyu hitman, Koji Suzuki and winter arrival from Eupen in Belgium, Yuta Toyokawa, provide decent goal-scoring options from the bench. A final mention for 18 year-old attacking midfielder Jun Nishikawa, who turned pro this year and should see a decent amount of game time as the season progresses.

Predicted Line Ups

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Match Prediction

Derbies are notoriously tough to call, and this one especially so with the COVID-19 enforced break and the absence of any supporters. To say this will be a tight and cagey affair isn’t really pushing the boat out too far, but that’s how things will likely go. I’ll back Gamba to breach the Cerezo rearguard but the points will be shared in a rather tame 1-1 draw.

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Gamba meets FC Ryukyu

Hi Everyone,

I hope you are all keeping well, it is with great excitement that I write this article. Geoff Osborne (@OkinawaOzzy) has put together a tremendous series of get-to-know-you chats with some of the biggest names in the JLeague English scene…Michael Master, Frontale Rabbit Blog, Nagasaki Blue and Orange Blog, FC Tokyo Kai Guys and Tokyo Verdy Unofficial. I was the first interviewee of the series and I thought I’d repay the compliment by sitting down and interviewing Geoff in what will be the final installment before thankfully JLeague returns to action next week.

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In this Interview, my words will be in bold and Geoff’s will appear in normal font.

Hi Geoff,

Q. It’s been a few months since we last talked, obviously the COVID-19 situation has evolved rapidly since then. I’d like to start by asking how things are over in Okinawa? How are you and your family dealing with the crisis?
Hey brother! Great to chat with you again. Well, the family and I are adjusting to what we perceive as the “new normal.” We try to follow a meticulous routine when we leave or enter the house, always using hand sanitizer when touching anything outside of our house, wiping down all products we buy in a store and always wearing a mask in public areas. We are by no means perfect and there are definitely times when you become complacent, flat out forget, or the kids get you rattled, but we firmly believe in doing as much as we can to limit our exposure to COVID-19 as well as the rest of society.

As far as Okinawa is concerned, there have been zero reported cases here in over 40 days, but there has also been very limited testing (less than 10 a day it seems) and we are expecting an uptick in tourism soon. They were expecting around 13 million visitors to Okinawa this year and it remains to be seen if they will allow travelers from those countries that frequently come to Okinawa to resume travel. No one should be under the impression that we’ve turned the corner on CV-19 and we should all expect several waves of the virus over the next few years.

That will impact Okinawa particularly hard as the economy is built on tourism, and to a lesser degree the employment offered on the military installations around Okinawa. It has already begun to affect those industries as well as the restaurants (izakaya) and shops that thrive on tourism dollars which may in turn have a direct impact on FC Ryukyu.

How about you? Osaka was one of the last areas to be released from a State of Emergency correct?

Yes, I believe we were the last ones outside of the prefectures in Kanto to exit the lockdown. I’m actually still working from home and as I live by myself, social distancing is not such a big problem for me. Like you, and I’m sure all of the readers, I’m looking forward to getting back to a bit of normality, the return of JLeague from 27 June will definitely help with that.

Q. Thanks again for putting this series of interviews together, the feedback on Twitter seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. What inspired you to do it?
I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to speak to so many great people that I follow on twitter with this series. It was a great getting to know them and their teams on a much deeper level. The inspiration came from a couple of different areas. First, I wanted others to become aware of the rich English content that covers the J-League that so many people pour their hearts and soul into for little more than recognition. I think we can all agree that English language coverage for the J-League is not that great which makes the herculean efforts by the lads over at the J-Talk Pod, J-Talk Extra Time Pod and J-Soccer magazine so special.

Second, after I wrote an article for the J-Soccer Magazine I wanted to know the story behind the authors of the J-League English blogs and Twitter accounts. I enjoyed writing my story and think that all should have a chance to tell their story.

Finally, I cannot recall where I heard or read this point but I think English bloggers/writers for the K-League came together under one entity and that idea really excited me. I thought that was awesome and wonder if we could replicate that here in Japan. Well, that would require each team in the J-League having an English blogger or unofficial twitter account and after doing some research, I found that we are a long way off from that goal. Doesn’t mean we can’t hope for that one day. I cannot recall where I heard/read that? Possibly on the J-Talk Pod with Paul Neat (@NeatPaul)?

Indeed, I’ve been following the K League quite a bit in the absence of JLeague football and have been casting envious glances at the work the K League United crew are doing and the fact their efforts are recognised by the K League itself.

Q. As we speak, J2 and J3 are set to kick off on the weekend of 27/28 June with J1 starting the following week. Of course, this means you’ll get to see your beloved FC Ryukyu on TV a week before I can watch Gamba, you must be pretty psyched for the league’s restart, right?
Buzzing! I’ve never experienced such a long break in sports in my lifetime and I am itching to watch some matches that count as well as seeing the boys from Oki back in action. I was traveling for work when the opening fixture kicked off so I didn’t get to see their first match way back on February 23rd (119 days ago!).

While we are excited for the return of sports, I am not sure what to expect this year. No relegation is good for us but at what cost? Stuart and Jon did a great job breaking down the revenue streams for the J2 clubs a few weeks back on their pod and it was evident that ticket sales were not the largest source of income for the clubs so we can see how important it is for the J-League to conduct a season based on sponsorship dollars.

I think we can all agree that the players and staff are professionals and super competitive – how else would they’ve gotten to this level in their career – but what will the product look like on the pitch? Players trying to avoid injury, experimental lineups, mass substitutions, and then there is the reality that a player will pop hot for CV-19 and then what?

What do you think? What will football look like for 2020 and beyond?

It’s really tough to say, I actually sent some questions over to the J-Talk pod guys a few weeks ago and they were kind enough to discuss them on the show. I really agreed with Sean Carroll’s point that games played behind closed doors or with few fans in the stadium should favour the stronger of the 2 teams, more so than if it were played with fans. But, there are so many things we don’t know, nothing would really surprise me at this stage.

Q. I’d like to come back and talk more about your predictions and aspirations for FC Ryukyu later on, but first I want to know about your journey. How did you come to be in Japan? And specifically, why Okinawa?
I accepted an offer for a job that initially was supposed to be in California but the company asked if I wished to take a similar position in Okinawa, Japan. I didn’t even hesitate as I was living with my brother in Jacksonville, FL after we had both finished our service in the U.S. Marine Corps which also happened to coincide with the US economy falling apart in 2008 and that meant finding a job proved to be difficult.

I landed in Okinawa in July of 2009 and got a rude awakening to the heat and humidity that I thought I was accustomed to while living in Florida. I was wrong. But I do love it here in Okinawa as a place to raise a family and work. I do think I’ll head back to the U.S. one day but I hope that is after my young kids are through High School.

Q. What made you take up blogging in English for FC Ryukyu? What’s the response to your blog been like?
The response has been absolutely phenomenal. The blog has allowed me to develop a much deeper relationship with FC Ryukyu as well as meet so many great people involved in the world of football and for that I am so grateful. The inspiration for the blog came after the Omiya match when the head of the FC Ryukyu Supporters club suggested I do one in English. It was a win-win as I finally had a venue to voice my displeasures or spout my opinions on the club.

It is funny, shortly after I started the blog I was asked to appear on the J-Talk Pod with Ben. I was excited but also a bit nervous as I am by no means someone who has played or studied football extensively so I have no idea on the technical or tactical part of football. As I said, I really started the blog to voice both my displeasures and pleasure with the club based on what I was seeing on the pitch every week as well as during transfer windows year in and year out.

But, while you may not be able to pick out the tactics, if you’ve watched enough football like we all have, then you can pick up on certain things and get to see parts of the game you may have otherwise missed while just sitting there ball watching.

Since that first entry, I’ve tried to continue to evolve the match day previews, reports and content as well as find something to talk about surrounding the club. As you know, there are some pretty dry times in blogging and if this season turns into match days every 3 or 4 days well there won’t be too many op-ed pieces with all of the aforementioned previews and recaps.

I know exactly what you mean, with many weeks containing 3 games, my match previews are going to contain more graphics and less writing. I’m looking forward to seeing what you have lined up.

Q. I know a lot of us are very active on Twitter, but we live busy lives in different corners of Japan, have you met any of the Twitter Japanese soccer community in person?
Actually yes. I linked up with @frontalerabbit for the “Tamagawa Derby” (is that right?) when FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale locked horns last summer. That was awesome and I’ve written about that day many times.

I have met Stuart @stuartcw at an FC Ryukyu match last year as he is a fan of FC Ryukyu, as well as Yokohoma F Marinos.

I also met a member of English J-League royalty when I had a coffee and chat with no other than Jon Steele @J2KantoBites when he visited Okinawa this past spring with his family. I even tried bribing his young son with some FC Ryukyu schwag in a rather thinly veiled attempt at swaying this young man’s allegiances over to FC Ryukyu. To no avail though.

Finally, @frontalerabbit, @sushi_football, @tpen18, @BenitoWill and I are getting together periodically on Zoom for some rather nice, and rather expensive, craft beer parties.

I was thinking it would be great to do some live commentary on the matches over Zoom, to which I can record, and then upload them to YouTube. Would love to do it with supporters of the opponents. What do you think?

Yeah that sounds awesome, I know V-Varen Nagasaki, Tochigi SC and Zweigen Kanazawa (sorry if I’ve forgotten anyone) have pretty passionate online bloggers, would be great to hear you guys duelling it out! I also liked Stuart’s idea for a J-Talk Live once COVID-19 finally disappears.

Q. I’ve been living in Japan for over 7 years now, but have yet to visit Okinawa. If someone like myself was to visit for an FC Ryukyu game, what other attractions does the place have to offer?
For sake of this question, let’s assume that all the attractions are open and running. First, it will depend largely on what time of the year you’re visiting. The beaches, both paid and free access, are great. Second, the aquarium is spectacular but slightly far removed depending on your accommodation location.

Third, I would recommend taking the ferry to either Ie Island or the Kerama Islands. Each has something unique to offer and is a nice way to spend a few days or evening at a resort or hotel on the many smaller islands. A word of advice, if you intend on climbing Mt Gusuku with young children, I hope you’re in excellent shape when you need to carry them up and down after the novelty of walking up steep stairs wears off. This is based on first hand knowledge. When I reached “base camp” after the descent I went to the shaded area dripping in sweat and drank a gallon of water/Pocari sweat and then went to the car to cry out of sight of the family.

Finally, if you are football fan than you must visit the head of the FC Ryukyu supporters club, Hiro, at his bar/izakaya, Café Camp Nou just off the famous Kokusai-dori (street) in Naha. He has quite a collection of football paraphernalia and loves meeting fans of football teams from all over the world. (https://tabelog.com/okinawa/A4701/A470101/47000704/)

As a huge tourist destination, you really cannot go wrong with whatever you decide to do here in Okinawa. The food is great and if you want some eclectic stuff, try the area they call “American Village.”

It’s always great to get a local’s perspective on things. Thanks a lot, I really hope to make it down there some day!

Q. I know you’ve mentioned before your father is from England and you support Arsenal in the Premier League, also you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. Do you have an interest in any other sports? Or any other teams in particular?
Other than following the local Pittsburgh teams of the Penguins and Pirates not really. According to my wife, I spend way too much time focusing on Fantasy Football for the NFL but I am involved in dozens of Fantasy Football leagues every year and that is one of my true passions. That leaves little time outside of FC Ryukyu, Arsenal and the Steelers for much else.

And despite playing baseball in college, I cannot watch baseball these days. If I were forced to choose an NPB team it would be the Chunichi Dragons as that was the team that Tom Selleck played for the in the iconic movie, “Mr. Baseball.” Which also so happened to be the main source for how I should conduct myself in Japan prior to meeting my wife.

Q. Osaka is a huge city and when I go to Gamba games, although Osaka people are known for their friendliness, the sheer scale of Panasonic Stadium makes it difficult for me to get chatting with other fans. How do you find things when you attend FC Ryukyu matches? Do you have a group of supporters you always go to games with? How do local people react when they see you at the stadium?
I envy you my friend. It is well known that FC Ryukyu don’t pack the Tapista in large numbers outside of very special occasions. Therefore, it is easy to interact with many fans as well as meet people in and around the grounds.

I used to have a nice group that would attend matches semi-regularly when FC Ryukyu were back in J3 but they have since moved on. I usually end up going solo but I do go early enough to hang my flags with the FC Ryukyu supporters’ group. We always chat pre-match when meeting up several hours before kickoff but then usually go our separate ways. To be honest, Hiro’s English is getting much better since I’ve been speaking only English at him the past 5 years.

I am a bit conflicted when it comes to sitting in the supporter section, and still to this day, I never understood the chants that they sing. I made a concerted effort this year to translate them into English and put them into a supporter’s guide in English for anyone who wanted to join in. I also enjoy being near, but not in that section, as I have met many more fans and can experience the matches in my own special way away from the supporter’s section. But make no mistake, I stand should to shoulder with them when I attend away games.

As far as how the locals react, its been great! I’ve been pulled into many little tailgating parties outside the stadium, photo bombed some twitter and IG accounts and met some awesome people. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with a dude dressed in a templar tunic with chainmail?

Honestly I’m not sure how to answer that, but yeah, FC Ryukyu are almost everyone’s second club, so it’s great to hear they’ve got a good bunch of supporters.

Q. I know you’ve spoken very passionately before about ideas that FC Ryukyu should consider to broaden their fanbase and appeal, have you ever spoken to anyone at the club about implementing some of your suggestions?
I met the former President of the club, Subaru Mikami, last year and we had a lengthy conversation on several issues pertaining to the marketing of the club. I listed out near, mid and long-term goals that I though the club could achieve, some of which would come at little to no cost for the club in the hopes that the atmosphere in and around the stadium would improve.

It was an eye-opening experience, and one that I am grateful for, as I never truly understood the constraints that a club can face when they do not own their own stadium. I can say that at least two of the ideas were enacted as we finally got hand soap inside the bathrooms at the stadium and there was definitely more signage in the form of flags around and inside the grounds.

I have also met Kei Hirosaki, who is now the acting President of FC Ryukyu, at Haneda Airport after the final game against Kofu last season as well as at the fan event at the end of last season. I didn’t push any ideas on him and simply passed him a business card I made up that listed my blog and contact info and I hope to have some more conversations with him this year.

Awesome, it’s good to hear the club is at least willing to listen to suggestions.

Q. It’s quite common in J1 for clubs to have ageing marquee foreign or Japanese talents in their ranks such as Iniesta at Kobe of Shunsuke Nakamura at Yokohama FC. FC Ryukyu have the legendary Shinji Ono in their midfield now, what kind of impact has he had on and off the field?
The quick answer is he has made a massive impact at the club and community. I should also note that he joined the team late in the summer transfer window last season and we’ve seen a huge disruption in the schedule for this year so we will need more time to make an honest and accurate assessment.

His first ever match in the Bengara red drew the largest crowd in the history of the club when 12,019 people packed a stadium that was supposed to only hold 10,189 (though it could supposedly surge to 25,000). Unfortunately, Shinji didn’t score that game, or all year for the club, and eventually succumbed to an injury that ended his season.

I don’t think getting on the score sheet would have made the biggest impact for the club. In fact, I believe it was his presence in the locker room and training grounds that halted the slide that FC Ryukyu were in the middle of when he arrived.

He has been a marketing dream for the club as he constantly appears on television programs and I hope that his presence continues to bring people to the stadium but I am cautiously optimistic. History showed us last season, in his second and third games – which were massive for FC Ryukyu as they desperately needed points- less than half (6,000) and then less than one-sixth (2,000) of his first game attendees showed up to see him and the team.

Solving the great mystery of local attendance at matches is a very complex problem here in Okinawa.

Q. I think we both enjoyed the recent J-Talk Extra Time Podcast Stuart and Jon did on the state of finances in J2. FC Ryukyu were one of the great overachievers in J2 last year according to the numbers. Stuart did a great job of fleshing out the raw data for all clubs, but talking with you I’d like to zero in on FC Ryukyu. Basically, in your opinion, why have FC Ryukyu been able to punch well above their weight over the past few years?
That’s a good question and definitely not an easy one to answer as I only have extensive knowledge on FC Ryukyu and not the other 53 or so clubs in the J-League tiers. I will say that the club has pulled in some serious talent – and then shipped it out- over the years. Park Il-gyu, Nakagawa, Yuta Togashi, Satoki Uejo are just a few that jump right off the page. But the players would be nothing without the coaches and the system. Kim Jong Sung came in and gave this team an attacking identity and Keita Tanaka flourished in that system. So much so that he signed for Mito after 2016 and then returned for a loan spell before coming back fully last season. I think that we have got the most out of the players over the years and that speaks volumes on the level of coaching and scouting the team conducts.

I am not sure how they manage to sign talented players, on what I am assuming are relatively affordable contracts, when it is obvious that many of these players are talented and either have a lot left in the tank or are emerging stars. Maybe they convinced these guys that they will be playing versus rotting on the bench somewhere for a larger club.

There is also a bit of an interesting relationship between Mito HollyHock and FC Ryukyu as they initially loaned us Tanaka in 2017, signed DF Shuhei Takizawa away from us in the 2018 offseason, but then we signed Dany Carvajal and Keita on permanent (if that term even applies out here in Japan) deals, while also receiving Ryo Ishii on a year long loan deal last year that proved vital for us at the end of the season. Then FC Ryukyu signed a player that everyone raves about in Shunsuke Motegi this offseason. Maybe it was because Subaru Mikami once worked at Mito HollyHock and we have a good connection with the club, in either case, I am glad we do as we’ve poached several good players from their roster the past few years.

But until there is a monumental shift in the finances of this club, we’ll never be able to get to, or compete at, the level of the larger clubs. We will always feed the more financially stronger clubs talented players and I just hope the owner and management staff can get us to the point of being able to offer a player double his current wages, like Fagiano Okayama did with Uejo. Only then we can build up some serious staying power for a push to the top.

I rambled a bit there but to answer your original question, I think they’ve had some serious luck when it comes to the timing of their signings and then the coaches and staff have leveraged talent to its maximum extent. Not a recipe that will provide long term success, but will provide some exciting football right now.

The expectations must be tougher with a club like Gamba who are expected to compete for titles every year.

For anyone willing to listen to my extensive ramblings on Gamba’s transfer strategy in recent years, let me take this opportunity to point you in the direction of some previous entries on this blog.

Q. You’ve written an excellent piece in the latest JSoccer Magazine (Issue 29) and you talk about some of the away day trips you’ve done (I also thoroughly enjoyed your Twitter updates from the match at Kofu at the tail end of last year). I’ve only really done Gamba away games at Kanto clubs when I lived in Machida, how would you describe the away day experience in Japan?
Thank you for the kind words. Away games are simply great times, and away games are something that every fan should try to do. I understand that sometimes it is not financially feasible or even harder to convince your spouse and family that your headed off on a mini-vacation to go watch football. But the experience is well worth the sacrifices. Not only are you getting to see your club play, you get to experience another part of Japan that you may have otherwise never considered visiting.

I would tell anyone that before you book tickets and lodging, you need to consult Chris’s (@LiFJapan) Lost in Football Japan website. There is plenty of good information and advice there that me simply putting the link here doesn’t do it justice. (https://lostinfootballjapan.com/)

Q. Now to this upcoming campaign, I was wondering if you could tell us, which already established first-team member do you think will be most pivotal to FC Ryukyu’s success this year? And who is a largely unheard-of future star we should look out for?
This one caught me off-guard, which makes it a great question. Damn, this is really hard! I’m looking at the roster on the FC Ryukyu website and I can make an argument for each of the starting 11 as to why they matter the most. Damn you man!

I am going to say that a defender will be the most pivotal player for the squad this year, I am just not sure which one. CB Lee Yong Jick may be the one but I think it may actually be Daisei Suzuki, but that will largely depend on whether or not Higuchi sticks with the man we initially received on loan from Vortis and then just signed to a permanent deal during the CV-19 break. I watched him in a training match and was impressed by his presence and as everyone witnessed last year, we need to put a stop to the massive bleeding at the back for Ryukyu.

FC Ryukyu only have 2 healthy strikers at this point, and both are over 30 years of age, so it seems we’ll rely heavily on our MFs to score goals. That probably isn’t a great idea and that is why we need a solid defense so we can see out 0-0 and 1-0 score lines this season.

The relatively unheard-of star could go in several different directions as well. MF Shuto Kawai came out of nowhere last year and his speed is lethal. There are indications that Urawa is interested in acquiring his services this year which would suck as there is no way we are going to stop that move. Ren Ikeda, a college signee, impressed Higuchi enough during camp to earn the starting CAM slot behind our lone striker but I don’t think he had the greatest of opening matches back in February so we’ll see if he is in there in 2 weeks.

The one I am going with is Yoshio Koizumi. He is a name that not many will know or care to know. He hasn’t registered any stats that would indicate he is someone that people need to be made aware of or even cracked the reserves in a consistent manner. But his time is coming.

This dude jumped off the screen in his limited action against Tokyo Verdy last year and I think he could challenge Ren for the #10 role sooner rather than later.

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New FC Ryukyu signing, #24 Daisei Suzuki, and
up and comer #28 Yoshio Koizumi.


Sorry, I didn’t realize that one would be so tough for you. Maybe the quick fire round later on will also prove harder than I thought. Also I didn’t know Suzuki had signed permanently, let’s hope it’s a good move for all parties.

Q. Obviously last year you guys got off to a flier before eventually settling for 14th. I’m guessing you would have taken that position at the start of the year? How do you see things panning out this time round?
Had you asked me this prior to the CV-19 break I would have said around the same place we finished last year. And you are right, I would have gladly taken 14th at the start of last season as FC Ryukyu were a newly promoted club which always seem to be one of the favorites to go right back down each year.

FC Ryukyu have shifted their approach to squad construction this year by moving on from youthful exuberance to more of a seasoned veteran approach. Not having the data in front of me, I’d like to see where FC Ryukyu rank as far as the average age of the squad compared to the other J2 teams. (maybe @ConDrei can help out with that?)

We already talked about the fact that defense was a major issue that needed addressed in the offseason and I think they did quite well there. With that said, we conceded a goal within the first 40 seconds of the campaign this year. I know that wasn’t the ideal start to the season but they did choke out that attack the rest of the game and that is the only data point we can operate off of for now.

Since there is no concern over relegation, and that games may look more like training sessions than actual competitive matches, I am not expecting much this year other than a break in the boredom of no sports.

I am more concerned for 2021 when there will be an actual season and what the squad will look like then. One last point, I don’t think our squad is large enough to survive a decent amount of injuries or CV-19 cases with the fixtures piling up. Glad there is nothing really at stake this year, outside of promotion, so we can suffer through whatever happens and then get right for 2021.

Q. I know we discussed last time that I support a small team in Scotland called Ayr United. When one of our players moves on to a clearly bigger side, most fans wish them all the best. However, there have been times when a player has moved on to a bigger spending divisional rival and this has soured the relationship with the fans. With that in mind, how do members of the FC Ryukyu support feel about the diaspora forming at Fagiano Okayama? (Satoki Uejo, Kosuke Masutani and Shuhei Tokumoto)
Probably the same as Mito feel about us at FC Ryukyu! The only person that is soured on these moves is me but I understand that the transfer system is broke here in Japan and these guys are looking out for themselves and their families as basically independent contractors.

Guys would be foolish to turn down larger sums of money for the sake of loyalty to a club and fan base when the system doesn’t support that way of thinking. I love seeing former players flourish at other clubs, especially in the J1, and until FC Ryukyu become a serious player in the financial market, this type of reality will continue.

As far as the other FC Ryukyu fans, nothing I’ve seen on Twitter would indicate any hostility to former players. In fact, the opposite is true. I watched many FC Ryukyu fans purchase Uejo and Tokumoto kits this year as well as visit them at the training camps in Okinawa this past winter.

The Japanese supporters are certainly a very different breed to Scottish ones. I’m not sure many Ayr fans bought Lawrence Shankland or Liam Smith jerseys when they moved to Dundee United last summer (I know absolutely no-one reading this has any idea who these players are!)

Q. Finally, before we move onto the quick fire round, I know the big European Leagues have all the stars, glitz and glamour, what would your sales pitch be to fans to try to make them become interested in JLeague?
Oh Boy. The league as a whole? That’s tough. The fact that we are doing these interviews shows that the league needs a massive overhaul in the way they produce and market their content to the outside world, especially when it comes to content in English.

Seeing how it is unlikely that any leagues should try and compete with the larger leagues head on, maybe taking the approach of the league as a way to start your day with football is one way to go. I think games come on around 4am in England and I recall being able to get up early each morning in the U.S. and get my fix of the Bundesliga and then EPL before the NFL kicked off. I loved those days filled with sports from the time I woke up until I went to bed.

Doing tours to Europe for training camps and friendlies, similar to how the larger European clubs come out this way each year, may garner a little more exposure to the league as well.

And you? What would you institute?

The K League United guys offer a template that it’d be good to follow initially, I know from my Gamba blog that there is decent demand out there for English language content, and also a lot of my followers are not native English speakers (I’m making an assumption here based on the location of their views), so there’s got to be other languages which are thirsty for content, German, Indonesian or Spanish for example.

OK, now to the quick fire round…

Best player you’ve ever seen pull on an FC Ryukyu shirt?
Kazaki Nakagawa, with Keita Tanaka a very, very close second thanks in part to his extensive service to the club. But Nakagawa’s 2018 season was insane from a statistical standpoint and his start of 2019 was even more blistering, that is, before he left after Match Day 3 and all the wind was taken out of the Ryukyu sails.

Best opposition player you’ve seen?
Cristiano from Kashiwa Reysol. I watched that dude when Reysol were in the ACL years ago and I am always impressed at his work rate and motor. He never tires and is relentless. Plus, he is a lethal finisher to go along with his ability to set up other players. I’d love him for 1-2 seasons down here but that will not happen when he is still in his J-League prime.

Favorite ever FC Ryukyu player?
Keita Tanaka with Yu Tomidokoro a close second in this race. Tanaka was great to watch in 2015-2016 and that made for a great viewing experience after some pretty harsh opening years for me. Yu is masterful at dead ball kicks and considered to be “Mr. Ryukyu” but Keita was scoring at will in his first season with us.

Ex-player you’d most like to see back at the club?
I hate you for this! Nakagawa. (Sorry!!)

Best FC Ryukyu game you’ve seen?
I think you all may be aware that I walked out early during the historic 3-2 comeback win against Nagasaki last season when we were down 2-1 to attend a Moai event. I deeply regret that as that is something that I never do. With that in mind, the answer is the first away match of the 2019 season at Omiya, which was also the first away match I ever attended. With so many unknowns and the way the game transpired I cannot think of a better game other than maybe the title lifting match in 2018 vs Thespakusatsu Gunma. 4-3 score line with goals galore, great saves and the celebrations were awesome that day in Omiya.

Best individual performance you’ve seen by an FC Ryukyu player?
Yuta Togashi’s 4 goal outburst against SC Sagamihara back in 2018 comes to mind and though I think Dany’s performance against Omiya on the road in 2019 allowed us to walk out of there with all 3 points that day. It has to be Nakagawa’s 3 assist performance against Omiya that same match.

Best (non FC Ryukyu) JLeague uniform this year?
Shonan Bellmare

Dream signing (if FC Ryukyu were the richest club in the world)?
Zinedine Zidane as Manager; Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the antics; Ronaldo for the publicity and Mbappe for the talent.

Dream signing (realistic)?
Cristiano, Olunga or Goya from Reysol would be nice. Though you never know. Maybe we could get Ryo Miyaichi from FC St. Pauli one day.

Away ground you’d most like to visit? Why?
Giravanz Kitakyushu’s Mikuni World Stadium. The view looks spectacular.

Best manager currently in Japan (J1, J2 or J3)?
Most might say Ange Postecoglou but we’ll see how Yokohama F.Marinos gets on without Cklamovski. Toss up between Ricardo Rodriguez at Tokushima or Baptista at Reysol.

And finally….best team in Osaka?
Cerezo of course! They have Koji Suzuki. But I prefer Gamba’s uniforms and I do like watching Usami.

Wrong….the correct answer is…….(drum roll)…….FC Osaka

Lastly Geoff, I know you’ve given myself and the other participants in this series the chance to point people in the direction of those in the know in the English speaking Japanese soccer world…is there anyone we’ve forgotten or anyone you’d like to give a shout out to…the floor is yours.
First off, all of us collectively have done an amazing job when it comes to presenting info about the J-League in English to the world. This pertains to everyone who writes a blog, tweets a tweet or conducts a podcast. I think through all of the interviews we have named just about everyone there is in the small J-League English coverage community. And we strongly encourage more people to get involved so we can have an English-speaking representative for each club in the J-League.

Second, I’d like to thank everyone that has been part of my J-League experience to date. While I cannot name everyone, 2019 was a turning point for me as I became a part of a larger community of fans in the J-League and have made some great friends along the way.

Finally, as recent events have shown us, we all need to be working together for common goals and using whatever platform we have to promote these causes. That includes stamping out racism and CV-19. There is no telling what is in store for the future but I am glad to know so many great people that will make the best of whatever lies ahead.

Well said brother, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Just a final shout out to @vegalta_blog (https://vegaltasendaienglishblog.wordpress.com/ ) the JLeague’s newest English blog. Please give it a follow on Twitter.

Thanks again Geoff and I look forward to your contributions on all things FC Ryukyu during this crazy 2020 season.



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Uncategorized

Classic Gamba matches #1

Sunday 17 November 2013
J.League Division 2 Round 41
Gamba Osaka 3-2 Montedio Yamagata
Expo 70′ Commemorative Stadium
Attendance: 13,970

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The teams come out.

The Background

Gamba suffered a shock relegation to J2 at the end of 2012. However, under the leadership of Kenta Hasegawa, in his first season with the club, and owing to the excellence of star players such as Endo, Konno and Usami, they came into this round 41 clash with promotion back to the top flight already in the bag. A win at home to a Yamagata side mired in mid-table would see them crowned J2 champions ahead of another Kansai club who had suffered relegation to the second tier the previous year, Vissel Kobe.

Gamba came into the game on the back of a 4-match winning streak which included impressive away victories at, 3rd place Kyoto (2-0) and 4th place Tokushima (5-1 – Usami scored 4 in that game), but, they’d have to do without their current Japanese internationals, Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno who were with the national squad for a set of friendly matches in the build up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The Team

Experienced right-back Akira Kaji captained Gamba in the absence of Endo and Konno as Kenta Hasegawa lined them up in his usual 4-4-2 formation. Enigmatic ‘keeper Yosuke Fujigawa had a solid looking backline in front of him. Daiki Niwa was partnered by the promising Takaharu Nishino who had enjoyed a breakout year while Kaji and Hiroki Fujiharu were the fullbacks. Shu Kurata started on the right-wing, with Tatsuya Uchida, another player who enjoyed plenty of game time in 2013 and Kenya Okazaki in his first year out of university in the midfield engine room, while it was the veteran Takahiro Futagawa who played down the left. Takashi Usami with 16 goals in 16 games since returning from a loan spell in Germany in the summer was the great hope in attack and he was partnered by the tall Akihiro Sato who had only recently recovered from a serious knee injury (writing this in 2020 and seeing the path his career has taken, I wonder if recovered is the correct word?)

The Match

Gamba started on the front foot and were rewarded with a brilliant solo effort from Usami after 15 minutes where he really showed that he didn’t belong in J2, running onto Sato’s headed touch, flicking the ball over the defender and drilling it low into the bottom corner.

The home side had something to defend and began to sit back, however this played into Yamagata’s hands, as the Tohoku side had nothing but pride to play for and decided to go for it. Hiroki Bandai equalised for Montedio just 4 minutes after Usami’s opener, flicking on a corner from the main stand side which flew past Fujigaya and into the Gamba goal…game on.

Gamba were not for taking that one lying down and good work down the left by Usami and Fujiharu saw the latter’s cross turned in by Yamagata defender Taisuke Nakamura to send the men in blue and black back into the lead just 3 minutes after Bando’s goal.

The second half saw chances for both sides before Usami effectively sealed the game 22 minutes from time, picking up Futagawa’s cross-field ball, he cut inside under the attention of several defenders before unleashing a shot from 20 yards out which flew past Tokizawa in the Yamagata goal.

Hiroki Bandai caused a nervous final 10 minutes in Suita by pulling a goal back after Fujigaya could only parry a shot from the edge of the box. Despite some frantic defending by Gamba towards the end, Montedio, breaking with JLeague tradition and not wearing a white away kit (opting for a yellow and blue Napoli away-esque effort) couldn’t find an equaliser and Kaji went on to lift the J2 trophy in front of an ecstatic home crowd while his team-mates brought on the #7 and #15 shirts of Endo and Konno to be part of the post match photos.

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Man of the match Usami and post match fun

Match Highlights
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gt5i1LWqEw

The Aftermath

No-one could have predicted that just over 12 months on from this slightly chilly early Autumn afternoon in 2013 that Gamba would have completed a domestic treble, winning J1, the League Cup and Emperor’s Cup. Indeed, the core of this side made up that treble-winning squad, Niwa, Fujiharu, Kurata, Endo, Konno and Usami were all big players whilst some who didn’t feature much in 2013 for a variety of reasons such as Keisuke Iwashita, Hiroyuki Abe, Oh Jae-suk and Kotaro Omori all made big contributions too.

The Stats

Gamba’s line up
*Apps and Goals correct to the end of the 2013 season.
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Montedio Yamagata
Satoshi Tokizawa, Satoshi Horinouchi, Tatsuya Ishikawa, Takumi Yamada (Goshi Okubo 56′), Taisuke Nakamura, Lee Tae-ho, Masaru Akiba, Romero Frank, Masaki Miyasaka, Masato Yamazaki, Hiroki Bandai:
Unused Subs: Kenta Shimizu, Kohei Higa, Kim Byeom-yong, Yuji Sakuda, Kenichi Tanimura, Alvaro Pena.
Kantoku: Ryosuke Okuno

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2020 J1 Preview Part 1… teams 1-9

This may be the only non Gamba specific article I do this year, but I thought I’d run down all 18 J1 teams and make some predictions for the year ahead. Teams are in order of where I think they’ll finish this year. In part 1 it’s the teams I think will place 1st-9th.

*The Key Players I’ve selected for each team are not necessarily the best players, more the ones whose good performances or lack of will influence their team the most.

Here we go…

1. Yokohama F.Marinos (last year:1st)
Director: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ado Onaiwu (Urawa) / Mateus (Nagoya)
Key Player: Marcos Junior
Lowdown: Last season’s champions have retained their manager and everyone in their first team with the exception of Mateus (who’s returned to Nagoya). The new signings seem more designed to add depth ahead of this season’s ACL campaign, however, Ado Onaiwu (10 J1 goals in 2019) and Kota Mizanuma (7 goals, 2 assists in 31 games) appear to be shrewd captures. Edigar Junio (11 goals in 16 games before injury last year) returns and could form a mouth watering front 3 alongside Erik (8 in 12) and last year’s J1 MVP Teruhito Nakagawa (15 goals, 10 assists in 33). They did have injuries in 2019 but the spine of the team; Thiago Martins, Hatanaka, Kida, Marcos Junior and Nakagawa all played at least 33 J1 games, will they be able to cope with the extra rotation that Champions League football will inevitably bring? Winning back-to-back titles will be tough but I don’t think any of their rivals have improved enough to overtake them, so as I see it, they’d need to regress / focus too much on ACL / have loads of injuries, if they’re to not lift the J1 crown again this year.
Predicted Starting XI:
Park
Matsubara-Thiago Martins-Hatanaka-Theerathon
Kida-Ogihara
Marcos Junior
Nakagawa-Onaiwu-Erik

2. Kashima Antlers (3rd)
Director: Antonio Carlos Zago (new)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Ryotaro Araki (Higashi Fukuoka HS) / Serginho (Changchun Yatai)
Key Player: Shoma Doi
Lowdown: They seemed to run out of steam badly at the end of 2019, but in true Kashima fashion still finished 3rd and reached the final of the Emperor’s Cup. A surprise ACL exit in the qualifiers may actually play to their advantage domestically this year. I feel Brazilians hold the key to their 2020 campaign, Antonio Carlos Zago is the new head coach and he has a couple of his countrymen in Everaldo and Juan Alano joining him in Ibaraki. How well they combine to replace the departed Serginho (20 goals in 50 games in all competitions in 2019) will have a big impact on their title chances. The signings of Tatsuki Nara (who knocked Gamba back again), Daiki Sugioka, Katsuya Nagato and Rikuto Hirose should bring more stability at the back, however, if Bueno continues to play regularly then scrap my 2nd place prediction.
Predicted Starting XI:
Kwoun
Hirose-Nara-Inukai-Sugioka
Misao-Leo Silva
Juan Alano-Doi-Izumi
Everaldo

3. Kawasaki Frontale (4th)
Director: Toru Oniki (4th)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Zain Issaka (Toin Yokohama Univ.) / Hiroyuki Abe (Nagoya)
Key Player: Leandro Damiao
Lowdown: The 2017 and 2018 champions were well off the pace in a disappointing year for them last time out. Frontale seemed to shoot themselves in the foot by letting Elsinho join Shimizu (I’m still utterly baffled by this), refusing to play right-backs at right-back, signing foreigners but rarely using them and being unable to find a regular role for Leandro Damiao. That said, this is still one of the most talented squads in Japan and an infusion of youth in the form of recent university graduates, Issaka, Mitoma, Kamiya and Hatate, coupled with no ACL distractions, should see them bounce back this season. I’m also really looking forward to seeing how Yasuto Wakizaka develops as I was impressed by him last year plus young Ao Tanaka will surely only get better, how long can they keep hold of him?
Predicted Starting XI:
Jung
Yamane-Taniguchi-Yamamura-Kurumaya
Oshima-Wakizaka-Tanaka
Kobayashi-L.Damiao-Hasegawa

4. Cerezo Osaka (5th)
Director: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Yamagata) / Kota Mizanuma (YFM)
Key Player: Hiroshi Kiyotake
Lowdown: Probably not the most popular prediction I could have made on a Gamba blog, but here we are. They have a manager who knows the type of player he needs and the style of football he wants to play, plus a front office that works in tandem with him (something we could learn from in Suita). Souza was an excellent player, but Lotina didn’t fancy him so he’s been and gone, replaced by his more conservative compatriot, Lucas Mineiro (on loan from Chapecoense). Other than that only Mizanuma (Marinos) has left from last year’s starting XI, though his replacement Tatsuhiro Sakamoto from Montedio Yamagata looks a good capture. It’ll be interesting to see how much game time young Jun Nishikawa gets and also how much Ken Tokura has left in the locker after suffering a serious injury in 2019.
Predicted Starting XI:
Kim
Matsuda-Jonjic-Kimoto-Maruhashi
Sakamoto-Fujita-Desabato-Kiyotake
Okuno-Bruno Mendes

5. Gamba Osaka (7th)
Director: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd / 2nd full season)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Gen Shoji (Toulouse) / Hiroto Goya (Kashiwa)
Key Player: Takashi Usami
Lowdown: Last year I said we’d come 6th and we ended up 7th, but in reality I never envisaged we’d start as horribly as we did, nor for that matter did I think Usami, Ideguchi and Patric would return. The same XI that finished last year strongly are still here, the Usami-Ademison partnership is blossoming, Onose, Kurata and Ideguchi will provide goals from midfield and there are youngsters emerging. Gen Shoji’s late arrival from Toulouse would appear to be the icing on the cake and could pave the way for a genuine ACL push this time out. The back 3 of Miura, Shiji and Kim give us a trio of current internationals, almost unheard of in the modern JLeague era where most national team players ply their trade abroad. My only doubts are over whether or not the 3-5-2 system gets the best out of the current squad, it could be argued that 4-4-2 with Ideguchi and Yajima sitting in front of the defence may offer a more solid base to build from. Anyway, the signing of Shoji has me in upbeat mood, here’s hoping for an entire campaign spent in the right half of the table!
Predicted Starting XI:
Higashiguchi
Shoji-Miura-Kim
Fukuda-Ideguchi-Yajima-Kurata-Fujiharu
Onose-Usami

6. FC Tokyo (2nd)
Director: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Shuto Abe (Meiji Univ.) / Oh Jae-suk (Gamba)
Key Player: Diego Oliveira
Lowdown: Ex-Gamba head-coach Kenta Hasegawa has done excellent things in the capital over the past 2 years, culminating in a best ever 2nd place J1 finish last year. This season’s crop features largely the same starting members (we all know how much Kenta likes his favourites) and they’ve been bolstered by the addition of 2 Brazilians, Leandro (Kashima, loan – why would you loan someone to a divisional rival?) and Adailton (Iwata). I think hell may freeze over before Hasegawa plays both of them, Diego Oliveira and Kensuke Nagai in the same line-up, but they should add depth to what is already an excellent midfield / attack. At the back, Joan Oumari (ex-Kobe and Tosu) plus Hotaka Nakamura (Meiji University) have come in, but they seem quite short of experienced backup there. Also in attack, Adailton is similar to Nagai, but an injury to Diego Oliveira would open the door for Tagawa, Hara or Yajima, none of whom played much in 2019 or have a great deal of top flight experience in general. They once again have an epic road trip (this time owing to the Olympics), having dealt with it reasonably well in 2019, can they repeat the trick this time round?
Predicted Starting XI:
Hayashi
Muroya-Watanabe-Morishige-Ogawa
Takahagi-Hashimoto-Abe
Leandro-D.Oliveira-Adailton

7. Vissel Kobe (8th)
Director: Thorsten Fink (2nd / 1st full)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Douglas (Shimizu) / David Villa (retired)
Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen
Lowdown: Kobe continue to baffle fans and pundits alike. If column inches were a predictor of success then they’d romp J1 every year, but as it stands, in the last 5 seasons (it doesn’t get any better if you look further back), they’ve finished 12th, 7th, 9th, 10th and 8th…as solidly mid-table as you could possibly be. After winning the Emperor’s Cup on January 1st they’ll compete in the ACL for the first time in their history, but with Japanese Super Cup commitments they had a very, very short off-season. A conservative estimate might say that they’ll play around 45 games in all competitions this year, realistically if Iniesta and Vermaelen could play 25 each they’ll be doing well, how they replace each of them in the 20 or so games they don’t feature in will go a long way to determining their fate. Douglas looks like an excellent replacement for David Villa and Furuhashi and Fujimoto bring goals too. At the back, the additions of Kikuchi and Yamakawa show an intent to fix a leaky rearguard, though the error-prone Hiroki Iikura is still between the sticks. Honestly, 7th is a pure guess, they could be champions or they could finish 12th and neither would really surprise me.
Predicted Starting XI:
Iikura
Dankler-Vermaelen-Osaki
Nishi-Yamaguchi-Samper-Iniesta-Sakai
Douglas-Furuhashi

8. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (6th)
Director: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Leandro Pereira (Matsumoto – Loan Extension) / Sho Inagaki (Nagoya)
Key Player: Tsukasa Morishima
Lowdown: The money drawer appears to be empty in Hiroshima as there has been little in the way of transfer action this winter. There are, however, plenty of young players coming through, Osako, Araki (would like him at Gamba) and Morishima (3 goals, 7 assists in 24 games in 2019) all look good. Taishi and Hiroya Matsumoto plus Shunki Higashi look to be the next in line to make an impact on the first team. Brazilian midfielder Ezequiel is an intriguing signing from Botafogo while the extension of Leandro Pereira’s loan deal from Matsumoto should help to relieve the goal-scoring burden on Douglas Vieira (7 goals, 4 assists in 24 games in his first season of J1 football).
Predicted Starting XI:
Osako
Nogami-Araki-Sasaki
Rhayner-Kawabe-Aoyama-Kashiwa
Morishima-Ezequiel
Douglas Vieira

9. Kashiwa Reysol (J2 1st)
Director: Nelsinho (2nd / 8th in total)
Best Signing / Biggest Loss: Yuta Kamiya (Shonan) / So Nakagawa (Iwata)
Key Player: Cristiano
Lowdown: Last year’s J2 champions return to J1 after a year-long sabbatical and like Kobe, I’m really unsure where to place them. Cristiano, Olunga, Esaka, Segawa and Matheus Savio will score goals, so from that perspective, it’s largely irrelevant whether or not new boys Goya and Nakama turn out to be good signings or not. They’ve brought in a lot of J2 talent this winter, Yokohama FC right-back Kengo Kitazume and midfielder Yuta Kamiya (Shonan – on loan at Ehime in 2019) seem to be the pick of the bunch. My questions about Kashiwa are all at the back, the partnership of Yuji Takahashi and Takuma Ominami could be very solid or it could be an undisciplined car crash, this will largely determine whether Reysol end up in the ACL spots or mid-table.
Predicted Starting XI:
Kim
Kitazume-Y.Takahashi-Ominami-Koga
Cristiano-Mihara-Kamiya-Segawa
Olunga-Esaka

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5 factors that will define Gamba’s season

With Gamba midway through their first training camp in Okinawa and me now fully settled back in Japan after a Christmas break Down Under, I thought it would be a good time for my first blog post of 2020. Again any feedback, opinions and constructive criticism are always welcome on Twitter.

#1 The Usami-Ademilson partnership
We all know that Takashi Usami is a prolific scorer in J1, he currently has 52 goals in 132 games in the competition and netted 7 in 14 at the end of 2019 (including 6 in the final 7 league matches when he stopped dropping deep so much). Perhaps the most impressive feature of his return home was how quickly he and Ademilson rebuilt their strike partnership after 3 years apart. I have been quick to criticise the Brazilian, but as part of my 2020 New Year’s resolution, I’m going to try and do that less this year. He shut me up last season largely by netting double figures in J1 for the first time in his career and also contributing 7 assists (8 if you included Kim Jin-hyeon’s own goal in the away match at Cerezo). Like a pre-Liverpool Sadio Mane, however, if you break the numbers down, you will find wild inconsistencies. Ade netted 4 in the first 5 J1 games and then 4 in the last 7 (when he played alongside Usami), but, in between there is a glaring 22 game run spanning 6 months which produced just 2 goals. I am in confident mood ahead of 2020 and say that Usami and Ademilson will combine for at least 25 goals this season!

#2 Who will play in the midfield triangle?
At the tail end of 2019 with Gamba on their way to 5 wins and 16 points from their last 7 matches which would propel them to a flattering 7th spot in the final standings, these places were filled by; Yasuhito Endo in the anchor role, with Shinya Yajima playing just ahead to the right alongside Yosuke Ideguchi to his left. Endo, veteran of 630 J1 games and due to turn 40 on January 28 doesn’t have much gas left in the tank and could be in his final year as a pro. Rumours of a move for Korean international Ju Se-jong seem to have come to nothing with the 29 year-old seemingly opting to stay at FC Seoul and play ACL football in 2020. This leaves the likely midfield three to be; Yajima in the anchor role, providing an energetic presence in front of the back 3 that Endo is no longer able to give, Ideguchi and the now fully-fit Shu Kurata just ahead of him. Kurata was Gamba’s joint-second top league scorer in 2019 with 7 goals and with a full pre-season under his belt I’d expect Ideguchi to contribute 4-5 goals this campaign. All the foreigner spots seem to be locked down and I don’t see any new blood coming in, so a midfield triangle consisting of Yajima, Ideguchi and Kurata with Endo getting game time in matches where Gamba are expected to dominate seems to be the way things will go. New signing from Kwansei Gakuin, Yuki Yamamoto will also likely feature at some point, but initially, at least, it’ll probably be from the bench and in the cups.

#3 Who will win out in the battle of the wing-backs?
If shirt sales were a factor in selecting the starting line-up then it’d be no contest and we’d see Kosuke Onose down the right and Yuya Fukuda down the left. This may well be what’ll happen at certain times, but, in all honesty I think we’ll see Fukuda return to what is supposed to be his favoured position down the right where he’ll compete with Onose, now the blue eyed boy of the Gamba faithful after turning down Champions Yokohama F.Marinos this winter. Onose netted 7 times in 30 J1 games last time out and Fukuda will need to up his output of 1 goal and 2 assists in 17 games if he wants to compete. Both players are versatile and can potentially play attacking midfield roles if required by Director Miyamoto who seems to have a real thing for players who can fill a number of positions.
Down the left, while Fukuda can play well there, I expect to see the experienced Hiroki Fujiharu and Kansai University graduate Keisuke Kurokawa battle it out. Fujiharu is in possession of the jersey at the moment after recovering from an injury plagued 2019, while I don’t know much of Kurokawa, save for 1 J1 game and 2 League Cup appearances last year while a special designated player, he does come highly rated and Gamba have a decent record with university recruits.

#4 More of the same in the back 3, or will Miyamoto shake things up?
Captain Genta Miura has apparently spurned the advances of Belgian side Sint Truidense to remain at the club and as long as that remains true, he and Kim Young-gwon will be automatic picks at the back. Who plays alongside them is the interesting question. There appear to be 4 candidates at the moment; Shunya Suganuma, Ryo Shinzato, Oh Jae-suk and Ryu Takao, let’s look at each individually. Suganuma finished the season in the role, playing the last 5 games and making a total of 15 J1 appearances, I like him, but feel he has limitations and a club looking to qualify for the ACL should be looking at someone a little better. Shinzato is a new signing on loan from relegated Jubilo Iwata, he played 20 times in J1 in 2019, but new head coach Fernando Jubero didn’t seem to fancy him, so he spent the end of the campaign out of the team. I don’t know a lot about him, but a quick scan through his career history seems to suggest he’s at a similar level to Suganuma.
Thirdly there’s Oh Jae-suk who spent the 2nd half of 2019 with his old Gamba boss Kenta Hasegawa at FC Tokyo. Better known as a right or left full back in his previous spell in Suita, playing as a 3rd centre back as he did in a couple of League Cup games last year may be his best shot of cracking the starting eleven. Ryu Takao, essentially signed as an attacking right-back from Kwansei Gakuin a year ago, played 18 games as the 3rd centre half before losing his position to Suganuma after the 2-2 draw at home to Kawasaki in mid-October. He did ok considering it’s not really his position, but I’m not sure the experiment will continue this season.
So to sum up, I’d expect Suganuma to start the season alongside Kim and Genta, but Shinzato will push him hard and either he or Jae-suk could earn a starting role if they play well in the Levain Cup.

#5 Can Jun Ichimori mount a genuine challenge to Higashiguchi’s number one spot.
Short answer no. The former Okayama man comes highly rated and had a decent season with Fagiano, playing 34 times in J2, but Higashiguchi was in solid form in 2019 and was an ever-present in J1. Barring injury or a serious loss of form by Higashiguchi, I can only see Ichimori being a very solid backup who plays in the cups.
Another interesting goalkeeper related topic his how youngsters, Mizuki Hayashi and Kosei Tani do during their loan spells at Renofa Yamaguchi and Shonan Bellmare respectively. As you know, Tani is my tip to replace Higashiguchi long-term, and I guess he has a decent shot at starting for Shonan, otherwise why would Gamba loan him to another J1 team to sit on the bench when he could get regular game time in J3 while training with Higashiguchi on a daily basis if he stayed put. Hayashi, on the other hand, may have selected the wrong side to join, although there is a good relationship between Gamba and Renofa, he faces fierce competition for a starting berth from Daisuke Yoshimitsu and Genki Yamada, I feel Okayama, now devoid of Jun Ichimori, may have been the better choice for him.

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End of season review

After a pretty mediocre 2019 spent mostly in the bottom half of the table but ultimately ending in a 7th place finish, it’s time to look at the state of Gamba’s squad and make some predictions regarding player movements ahead of the 2020 season. I’ll go through each player one by one based on their number. All ages given are as of 1 January 2020.

#1 Masaaki Higashiguchi – goalkeeper – 33 (years old) – An excellent season between the sticks and at 33, he’s still got plenty of good years ahead of him. Only his age is preventing him from a national team recall at the moment.

#4 Hiroki Fujiharu – left-back – 31 = Plagued by injuries this year, he did however manage to break through the 200 J1 appearances barrier. Better as an orthodox left-back than a wing-back, in my opinion and it’ll be interesting to see the battle between him and Keisuke Kurokawa for a starting berth in 2020.

#5 Genta Miura – centre-back / occasional right-back – 24 – I was never his biggest fan, but he won me over with some solid displays which earned him a recall to the national team. Being dropped for a couple of games and then played at right-back during the early season slump seemed to shake him out of the complacency which had dogged him in 2018. Rumours circling that Jleague Champions Yokohama F.Marinos have bid for him, hopefully, despite them being able to offer Champions League football, he decides that he doesn’t want to battle Hatanaka and Thiago Martins for a starting position and instead stays to fight to bring ACL football back to Suita in 2021.

#7 Yasuhito Endo – centre-midfield / deep-lying playmaker – 39 – He’ll be 40 by the time the 2020 campaign kicks off, so this year will surely be the one where he starts to see his playing time become much more limited similar to Kengo Nakamura at Kawasaki Frontale this year (Gamba’s apparent overtures to FC Seoul midfielder Ju Se-jong appear to confirm this). Still he’ll be a great help to the crop of younger midfielders coming through.

#8 Kosuke Onose – right-winger / wing-back – 26 – Built on a promising end to 2018 by having a breakout season this year (7 J1 goals and 4 assists). He saw off competition from new signings Tanaka, Susaeta, Concha and Suzuki to remain the undisputed first choice in his position and I’d expect him to kick on further in 2020. Hopefully this will be with Gamba as his form has not gone unnoticed, FC Tokyo and Yokohama F.Marinos are credited with bids to lure him away from Osaka next year. Slightly surprising that he didn’t get a call up for the EAFF Cup this month.

#9 Ademilson – centre-forward – 25 – Started and finished the season on fire with 4 goals in the first 5 matches and 3 in the final 3, however in between there was a lot of mediocre play, so he’s clearly very much a confidence player. Still, his end of season stats look good, leading Gamba in both goals and assists, 10 and 8 respectively. His renewed partnership with Usami looks to be blossoming which could bode well for next year. Supposedly Urawa were interested in him, but he is rumoured to have penned a new deal with Gamba and hopefully he can beat his 2019 goal-scoring tally next year.

#10 Shu Kurata – attacking midfielder – 31 – Winner of the Mr.Gamba player of the year award after netting 7 times before a broken jaw against Kawasaki Frontale in October derailed his season somewhat. One of my favourite Gamba players, depending on the formation he can competently play 4 or 5 different positions (note to Gamba front office – please stop signing players in his position) although his main flaw is that he picks up too many bookings.

#11 David Concha – right / left-winger – 23 – No idea why he was signed, must have been due to Spanish players becoming the new Brazilians in Jleague teams’ eyes. Wasn’t even given a decent run with the U23 side to prove himself. Everything was wrong about this signing; the timing – just after the season started, the lack of any Spanish support staff / team-mates and his position – one Gamba were well covered in. I’m sure he’ll be back in Spain next year and will most likely go onto have a journeyman career.

#13 Shunya Suganuma – centre-back – 29 – Got a decent run alongside Miura and Kim in the last 5 games of the year and let nobody down. Still, for a team chasing the top 3, he is much better as a backup than a regular starter. The only Gamba Youth defender in the current squad, I expect him to stay, but I also expect him to return to the bench for 2020.

#14 Markel Susaeta – right-winger – 32 – He most definitely has the experience and pedigree to be a success, however signing him with only 9 league games left didn’t really give him much of a chance to bed in. Couple that with the fact that he plays in the same role as Onose, arguably Gamba’s 2019 player of the year, bringing him in could be seen as a big waste of money. However, given a good pre-season and time to settle into life in Japan I believe he could be a useful player and I’d like to see him stay.

#15 Yosuke Ideguchi – centre-midfield – 23 – Delighted to have him back, he didn’t quite hit the highs of his previous spell with the club, but this was understandable due to his injury problems while in Europe. I’ve no doubt that a fully-fit Ideguchi will go on to be a mainstay in Gamba’s midfield for the next decade. His 2 goals against Matsumoto gave a hint of what may be to come, with Kurata and Onose (if he stays) contributing 14 goals between them from midfield, another 5-6 from Ideguchi would compliment that nicely.

#17 Yuto Suzuki – right / left wing-back / winger – 26 – Brought in on loan mostly as injury cover he largely did what was expected of him. He played on the left a few times which really isn’t his position even though he’s listed as being able to play there. Honestly I don’t think he’s good enough to be anything more than backup for a team aiming to finish in the top half of J1. Had decent spells with Yamagata and Mito in J2, a move back to one of them would be good business for both parties.

#18 Patric – centre-forward – 32 – I’m not totally sure why he was pushed out of Sanfrecce in favour of Douglas Vieira, but I was happy to see him rejoin Gamba on loan mid-season. He started off well, but then fell behind the resurgent Watanabe in the pecking order for a while. It’s being reported that he’ll sign on permanently and he’d definitely be an excellent backup and potential mentor for young Kazunari Ichimi.

#19 Kim Young-gwon – centre-back – 29- A fairly solid season from him, 1 goal and 1 assist from 32 J1 games. This is the kind of signing I like to see Gamba make (along with Usami and Ideguchi), he’s fairly low risk and relatively high reward. My only slight concern is that a 76 times capped South Korean who’s played in 2 World Cups and captained his country on occasion should really be the best centre-back in Jleague, shouldn’t he? Yet although he performed competently throughout the year, I don’t see him anywhere near anyone’s team of the year….maybe I’m being a bit overcritical and I definitely hope he stays, Gamba have a good track record of signing Koreans and his presence makes it much easier to attract more of them.

#20 Daisuke Takagi – left-winger – 24 – Hopefully he was signed with 2020 in mind otherwise he can be filed under the category of pointless signings (he’ll have plenty of company in there). He plays in positions that were already well covered and as twitter video evidence showed in physical training he’s still not quite up to the rigours of J1 yet. Hopefully he can improve and become more of a regular next year, adding to his 2 J1 sub appearances in 4 months at the end of this season.

#21 Shinya Yajima – centre-midfield / deep-lying playmaker – 25 – A pleasant surprise for me this year, he bounced back well after a very disappointing 2018. With Endo likely to feature less next year I’d like to see him continue to form a good partnership in the midfield engine-room alongside Ideguchi. Got 4 assists and 1 goal (the winner at home to Shimizu) in 27 league games, comfortably the most J1 appearances he’s made in 1 year in his career to date, possibly the most improved player this year.

#23 Mizuki Hayashi – goalkeeper – 23 – Barely played last year as Higashiguchi had no injury worries. From what I’ve seen of him he’s a decent ‘keeper but he needs game time and that’s not going to come at Gamba in 2020 with Higashiguchi the established number one and young Tani breathing down his neck. Wouldn’t be surprised at all if he went out on loan to a J2 side to get much needed match practice.

#24 Keisuke Kurokawa (designated special player) – left-back / wing-back – 22 – Featured a couple of times this year but I didn’t see him play. He comes pretty highly rated and Gamba have had some decent success in recent seasons bringing in players from universities so I’ve got high hopes for him.

#26 Kohei Okuno – centre-midfield – 19 – He struggled in the first part of this year with injuries but went on to put in some solid performances in midfield for the U23s in J3. He seems similar in style to Takahiro Ko so I don’t see many opportunities for him in the first team at the moment. He was played as a full-back at times in J3 but that’s definitely not his position (though it seems to be in vogue at the moment for central-midfielders to play right-back). A whole-hearted performer and one of my favourite Gamba U23 players this year.

#27 Ryu Takao – right-sided centre-back / right-back – 23 – Another pleasant surprise this year, I watched him make his senior debut as a marauding full-back against Vanraure Hachinohe back in March and would never have guessed he’d go on to play over 20 games at centre-back in J1. Gamba should sign more players directly from university as they seem to be better at it than getting them from other J1 teams. He was brought in to play right-back, so I’d like to see him get a run in his favoured position at some point.

#28 Yuki Yamamoto (designated special player) – attacking-midfielder – 22 – From Kwansei Gakuin like Takao so hopefully he’ll make a similar impact. He plays in a position that’s well covered at the moment so he may need to be patient in the search for game-time.

#29 Leo Takae – central / attacking midfielder – 21 – I really like him as a player and he improved a good deal over the course of 2019. If he’s going to play in an attacking midfield role, he is going to have to add goals to his game or Yamamoto will quickly overtake him in the pecking order. A loan move to a good J2 side can’t be out of the question now that the U23 team is gone.

#30 Naoaki Aoyama – centre-back – 33 – Signed to be the backup to the backup centre-back, he did all that was expected of him. If he’s content at this stage of his career to play a handful of League Cup and Tennohai games a year then he’ll stay, otherwise I’m sure he could play more regularly in a middling J2 side.

#31 Ken Tajiri – goalkeeper – 26 – Returned this year after an 18-month loan spell at Kanazawa and spent most of the campaign covering for Tani in J3. If Hayashi goes out on loan I’d expect him to hang around but otherwise with no U23 team he faces the choice of being 4th choice ‘keeper or heading for a career with a much smaller club in J3 or JFL.

#32 Ren Shibamoto – deep-lying playmaker / centre-midfield – 20 – Really improved a lot as one of the senior players in the U23 side this year. Very much in the Andrea Pirlo role, he’s well positioned to become more of a regular in 2021 or 2022 whenever Endo eventually retires. I wouldn’t be averse to seeing him go out on loan next year, preferably to a J2 side who like to play attractive football,

#33 Takashi Usami – attacking-midfielder / centre-forward – 27 – Along with Endo, he’s my all-time favourite Gamba player and I’m really happy he came back. It took him a while to get going this year, but he still ended up with 7 goals in 14 games to be joint 2nd in the Gamba goalscoring charts. His partnership with Ademilson next year will be key, 25-30 goals between them would definitely put Gamba in with a shot of cracking the top three.

#34 Yuya Fukuda – left / right wing-back – 20 – I was very impressed with how he improved throughout the year and when he struggled with injuries in the latter part of the season, he was missed. If he improves on his output – goals and assists – then he could be the next young Gamba protege to head to Europe. Onose’s departure, should it happen, would be a blow, but it could also allow Fukuda to nail down a first team slot down his favoured right flank.

#35 Tatsuya Yamaguchi – left-back – 19 – He’s played a lot of league games for someone so young and is always a tireless performer. That said, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement from him this year (although he had set the bar pretty high in 2018). At the moment he’s behind Fujiharu, Fukuda and Kurokawa in the pecking order (plus he has new Korean import Shin Won-ho for company) so he may well join a J3 side on loan in 2020.

#36 Riku Matsuda – centre-back / right-back – 20 – Made big improvements this year after being given the U23 captaincy and moving to centre-back. His height (175cm) may be an issue when it comes to playing centre-back in J1 but with Gamba U23 he improved his positioning and game-reading skills a lot which allowed him to mostly negate this. He was also able to talk Takahashi and Ono through games when he became the senior figure at the back after Noda’s loan move to Yamagata. I’d like to see him challenge for a starting slot next year and get some serious game time in the cups.

#37 Haruto Shirai – right-winger / centre-forward – 20 – He’s exclusively named as a centre-forward everywhere I’ve seen but the first 5-6 times I saw him play was on the right-wing and he only went up top when there was basically no-one else left to play there for the U23s. He’s very quick and tricky but needs to work on his goalscoring. I’m not sure if there are attitude / fitness issues with him as at times last year he was benched for high-school kids in J3 and was also often subbed with 30-35 minutes to go despite playing well. Sadly, I don’t see him making it at Gamba at the moment and a move to a J3 or JFL side may suit all parties.

#39 Kazuma Watanabe – centre-forward – 33 – I always thought he was slightly overrated when he was at Kobe but I definitely see the qualities he brings since he’s come to Gamba. He was backup for most of the year, but his winner against Tosu was invaluable and his goal against Sapporo a couple of weeks later showed what he’s all about. With Ichimi, Goya (maybe) and Takagi all due to come back after loan spells, I don’t see him playing anywhere near regularly with Gamba, and although I’d be happy for him to stay, he is a veteran with an eye for goal and any J2 side and even a few in J1 would benefit from his signature.

#41 Kosei Tani – goalkeeper – 19 – An injury hit 2019 still saw him earn a call-up to the Japan U22 squad in October. I really rate him and see him as the natural successor to Higashiguchi. If Hayashi goes out on loan next year, expect to see him move up to number 2 in the pecking order and get game-time in both cup competitions.

Kantoku – Tsuneyasu Miyamoto – 42 – A steep learning curve for him this year after everything going right for him in 2018. The horror start to the year (7 defeats in the first 11 games) could have seen the end of other managers, but to his credit he changed the formation and personnel and 39 points were gleamed from the remaining 23 league matches to earn a respectable 7th place finish. If the correct players are brought in and retained and ACL push and potentially +30,000 attendances will be expected.


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Gamba vs Matsumoto Yamaga Match Preview

Gamba Osaka (9th) vs Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. (17th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 33

30 November 2019 at 14:00 JST
Panasonic Stadium Suita


It’s Gamba’s final home game of the season on Saturday as relegation strugglers Matsumoto Yamaga make their first ever league visit to Panasonic Stadium Suita. Second half strikes from attacking duo Takashi Usami and Ademilson saw Gamba overcome a dogged Vegalta Sendai at home last week while Yamaga went down 1-0 in Nagano against championship chasers Yokohama F.Marinos.

A win for Gamba could see them overtake 8th place Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo who currently sit just 2 points ahead of them in the standings and travel to Kyushu to face Sagan Tosu on Saturday. Matsumoto are in second last place on the ladder with 30 points from 32 games which puts them a mere 2 points ahead of bottom club Jubilo Iwata and 2 behind 16th place Shonan Bellmare who they face at home in their final league game on December 7th. Essentially they need to win this week and next to drag themselves into the relegation play-off spot and then take their chances in a one-off match at home to Omiya/Tokushima/Kofu/ Yamagata if they want to survive.

Gamba have upped their goalscoring output from 41 in 34 J1 games last year to 47 in just 32 so far this campaign. Additionally in 2018, Korean hitman Hwang Ui-jo netted 39% of Gamba’s league goals (16 of 41), while things have been much more evenly spread this time round with Ademilson in first place in the scoring charts, having found the back of the net 8 times in J1 (17%). There have also been strong midfield contributions from Shu Kurata (7 goals) and Kosuke Onose (6) as well as returning hero Takashi Usami scoring at a rate of one goal every two games (6 in 12) since coming back from Germany in the summer.

On the other hand, the main stats you need to know about Matsumoto are that they’ve scored just 19 times in 32 J1 matches (0.59 per game), the worst goalscoring record in the league by far (Jubilo are 17th with 26 goals) and their top scorer this year is forward Ryo Nagai who has just 3 league goals to his name in addition to 3 assists. Yamaga’s style of play under head-coach Yasuharu Sorimachi can certainly be described as ultra defensive, though it could also be argued that due to financial constraints he was unable to bring in the players necessary to play a more expansive brand of football. The men in green and white started the season promisingly, but have been near the foot of the table for the majority of the year. Their mid-season transfer dealings, which could have seen them aim for a push up the table instead seemed to have the opposite effect and this has greatly hindered their chances of survival. Both of their main attacking threats from the first part of the season departed, the pacy Daizen Maeda (Maritimo) and Brazilian giant Leandro Pereira (Sanfrecce Hiroshima on loan, in exchange for Hiroki Mizumoto). The second of the two transfers makes little sense in hindsight as Mizumoto, although doing well, essentially only strengthened an already decent defence whereas Pereira’s exit weakened an already weak attack. Other summer arrivals were J2 attacker Toyofumi Sakano from Montedio Yamagata (1 goal in 12 games), full-back / midfielder Masaki Yamamoto on loan from JEF United (1 sub appearance), left-back Toshiya Takagi from Kashiwa Reysol (1 sub appearance) and Portuguese/Guinea-Bissau striker Isma (a bit of a footballing nomad, he last played in Iran) who only managed his debut off the bench last week.

Gamba defeated Matsumoto 3-1 in the reverse fixture back in June with Hwang Ui-jo opening the scoring to send Gamba into the break ahead. Masaki Iida headed Yamaga level early in the second half before a fine Shu Kurata strike put Gamba back in front 3 minutes later and Hwang got his second of the game late on to seal the deal. Indeed the half-time score in this game could be crucial, Matsumoto are yet to lose when they’ve been ahead at half-time this year (6 games) while Gamba are yet to win when they’ve been behind (2 draws and 7 losses). It should also be noted that 8 of Gamba’s 10 wins so far in 2019 have come after they were level at the halfway point, so they panic button is unlikely to be pressed if they don’t find an early goal against Yamaga’s miserly defence.

Gamba’s win over Sendai last week improved their home league record to 24 points from 16 games and extended their home league unbeaten run to 12 matches (6 wins and 6 draws), they currently have the 8th best home league record in 2019. Matsumoto’s counter attacking style has had slightly more success on the road than in Nagano, 17 of their 30 points and 4 of their 6 wins this year have come away from home. They last won at home in the league on April 20 (1-0 against Sagan Tosu), but since then they have defeated Nagoya (1-0), Urawa (2-1) and most recently Sendai (1-0) on their travels. With all that said, they still only have the 15th best away record in J1 and unsurprisingly have scored the least amount of goals on opposition turf this season (10 in 16 games).

Team News:
Shu Kurata’s return from injury off the bench against Sendai last weekend means that Gamba have a fully fit squad to choose from for this encounter. Following the convincing second half display in the Vegalta game, changes are likely to be at a premium. I’d say the only possible switch would be Kurata returning to the starting line up at the expense of either Yajima or Endo. At almost 40, Gamba’s number 7 looked a bit leggy last week and may be in need of a break, so I’ll say he’ll be the one to make way allowing the younger Yajima to provide a bit more cover in front of a back 3 that was a little exposed at times during the first half of last week’s clash.

Matsumoto generally line up in the same 3-5-2 formation as Gamba (they did start the season playing 3-4-2-1) and have a core of about 15-16 players who play regularly. In goal will be the 191cm Tatsuya Morita, the man who replaced Masaaki Higashiguchi in Niigata. He will be behind a vastly experienced back 3 of; on-loan Sanfrecce Hiroshima veteran Hiroki Mizumoto (34 years old), the long-serving Masaki Iida (34), who scored in the home match against Gamba and the popular Yuya Hashiuchi (32). Former Nagoya and Shonan wide-man Ryo Takahashi will likely be at left wing-back having played 30 times already this season and last week saw veteran Hayuma Tanaka (37) play down the right side, he’ll make his 418th J1 appearance if selected for this one. In the midfield triangle, the diminutive Ibuki Fujita will sit at the base and it’s likely to be ex-Kashima Antlers attacking midfielder Taro Sugimoto, possessor of a fierce right-footed shot (that Cerezo know all about) and Yuzo Iwakami playing just ahead of him. Top scorer Ryo Nagai was partnered in attack last week by summer signing Toyofumi Sakano, although another mid-season acquisition, the Bissau-Guinean international Isma debuted off the bench and could earn himself a starting berth this week. Other possible options include; 30 year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder Paulinho and attacking midfielder Keiya Nakami, formerly of Sagan Tosu. Brazilians; attacker Serginho and defender Eduardo are currently sidelined through injury, as is former JEF United attacking midfielder Yamato Machida.

Prediction:
Gamba have nothing but pride to play for this week and Matsumoto are battling to save their J1 skins so it would be prudent to give them some shot at a positive result. However, I feel that the current Usami and Ideguchi inspired Gamba will have just a bit too much in the tank for the defensive Yamaga and will prevail in a tight game, winning 1-0 with Usami again netting the decisive goal that could potentially confine Matsumoto to J2 for 2020.

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old/32 J1 apps in 2019 / 0 goals / 1 assist)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29/13/0/1)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24/29/1/0)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29/30/1/0)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26/28/6/4)
LWB 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (31/15/2/3)
DM 21 Shinya Yajima (25/25/1/3)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23/11/0/0)
CM 8 Shu Kurata (31/29/7/1)
CF 33 Ademilson (25/30/8/6)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27/12/6/1)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23/0/0/0), 27 Ryu Takao (CB/RWB/23/18/0/0), 34 Yuya Fukuda (RWB/LWB/20/15/0/0) 7 Yasuhito Endo (CM/39/26/1/5), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31/5/0/0), 18 Patric (CF/31/11/2/1), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33/17/3/0)

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5 players Gamba could sign this winter

Following on from my rant on Twitter the other day about the potential signing of Hayato Nakama from Fagiano Okayama (note to those who missed it, it’s nothing personal against the player who I think has had a brilliant season, more that like Ide, Tanaka, Concha, Susaeta and Takagi before him there’s no place for him to play), I decided to outline where I think the current Gamba squad can be improved and which players would be the best fit.

I am working on the understanding that next year will see a continuation of 3-5-2 with Higashiguchi in goal, a back three of Kim, Miura and Suganuma / Takao (this 3rd centre-back spot needs upgrading), Fujiharu and Onose as wing-backs with Fukuda and Kurokawa providing back-up (please no more wing backs unless someone leaves). A midfield triangle with Yajima at the base and Ideguchi and Kurata more advanced (Endo will probably see much less action next year), so we could potentially bring in someone to play just in front of the back 3. Finally Usami and Ademilson (if he stays) will play up front with Ichimi and Goya back from loan to give support, Patric and or Watanabe may leave for fresh pastures therefore possibly allowing for a new signing here.

With that in mind, here are my 5 suggestions;

#1 Yoshinori Suzuki – 27 (years old) – Oita Trinita – Centre-back – Captain and an ever present for Oita for the past 4 seasons. He has been a rock and source of dependability for the men from Kyushu as they’ve soared to 7th in J1 this season. Ideally I like to see Gamba build from within and just add the odd signing from smaller clubs, and with the greatest of respect to Oita, Suzuki fits the bill exactly. At 184cm he has the size to form a formidable defensive line along with Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon. If we are looking for someone with a bit more pace at the back then see option #3.

#2 Ryuho Kikuchi – 23 – Renofa Yamaguchi FC – Centre-back – He’s just completed his first season of senior football following his graduation from Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences (the same one as Hiroki Fujiharu) and quickly established himself as a key part of Yamaguchi’s defence. Renofa did concede 70 times in 42 games, but Kikuchi himself largely steered clear of the blame and managed 3 goals and 1 assist in 35 J2 games. I’d see the 188cm centre-half as a back-up initially, similar to what Yokohama F.Marinos are doing with Makito Ito, before hopefully nailing down a starting spot in the future.

#3 Tomoki Iwata – 22 – Oita Trinita – Centre-back / right-back – This is very much an either / or with option #1, Iwata’s club captain Suzuki. I’ve put Iwata lower on the list as owing to his status as a Japanese international following his call up to this year’s Copa America squad and his ongoing involvement with the Japanese Olympic team, I feel he’d be harder to prize away from Oita and may have better options elsewhere. At 178cm he’s quite small for an elite centre-back, but he does play on the right-side of a back 3 in a system very similar to Gamba. In addition he’s more pacy than Suzuki and can also play right-back if required.

#4 Ryota Nagaki – 31 – Kashima Antlers – Central-midfield / right-back – Before you start batting this one down, please hear me out. Nagaki may have played 46 games in all competitions for a strong Kashima side this year, so he could be seen as out of Gamba’s reach, but, he was reportedly on his way out of the club last winter as part of the deal that took Ryohei Shirasaki to Ibaraki. He’s also spent time at right full-back when Leo Silva and Kento Misao were fully fit and with the up-and-coming Shintaro Nago commanding more game time in the Antlers midfield, there is a slim chance Gamba could lure him to Osaka to provide a much needed shield in front of the back 3. Hidemasa Morita of Kawasaki would also fit this mould for me, but even if he’s behind Oshima and Tanaka at Frontale, I’m not sure we could get him (see Tatsuki Nara last year).

#5 Leonardo – 22 – Albirex Niigata – Centre-forward – Scored so many goals for Albirex in J2 this year that even Olunga’s 50 goals on the final day couldn’t overtake him. In all seriousness he netted 28 and assisted 6 in just 38 games making him one of the hottest properties in Asian football. Ademilson has been linked with Urawa (though the passion and commitment he showed on Saturday would suggest he’s going nowhere), however, if he stays, his partnership with Usami backed up by Goya and Ichimi (two other prolific scorers in J2 in 2019) probably means this deal would be dead in the water. If, on the other hand, Ademilson does become a Judas to the Gamba support and moves to Saitama, Leonardo would be the perfect replacement (Sugimoto in a swap deal would make heads explode). Gamba would be likely to face stiff competition from fellow J1 sides and even teams from China, the Middle East and Europe to land his services, but why not give it a shot?

Anyway, those are my thoughts, please let me know what you think on Twitter.

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Vegalta Sendai Match Preview

Gamba Osaka (9th) vs Vegalta Sendai (11th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 32

23 November 2019 at 15:00 JST
Panasonic Stadium Suita


J1 returns after the final international break of the season with a clash between Gamba Osaka and Vegalta Sendai, two teams locked on 38 points in mid-table. Gamba currently lie 2 places above Sendai due to a superior goal difference and have accumulated their points total through 9 wins and 11 draws whereas Sendai have won 11 times and drawn 5. With only 3 rounds of games left, both teams will feel like their J1 status is almost secure for next season and any points taken from this game should guarantee safety. After this match, Gamba play Matsumoto Yamaga at home the following week and then AFC Champions League finalists Urawa Red Diamonds in the final round. Vegalta, on the other hand, face tricky fixtures, at home to Oita Trinita in round 33, before finishing away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on December 7th.

Vegalta come to Osaka on Saturday with the worst away record in the league this year, just 3 wins and 1 draw from 15 matches, however, they have won 2 of their last 3 games on the road, overcoming struggling Nagoya Grampus 2-0 as well as a surprisingly comfortable 3-1 win at Sapporo back in September. Gamba haven’t been defeated in the league at Panasonic Stadium Suita since Urawa left with all 3 points back on April 14th and have won 5 and drawn 6 of their following 11 home fixtures.

Sendai won the reverse encounter between the sides on April 28th, as goals in injury time at the end of the first and second half by Katsuya Nagato and former Gamba man Shun Nagasawa respectively saw them overturn Kim Young-gwon’s early effort. This was an identical outcome to the match played between the two in 2018 when Kazuma Watanabe fired Gamba ahead only for two second half goals to swing things in the direction of the home side. This is a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned from by Gamba this year as they’ve only converted half-time leads into victories on two occasions (out of 6 attempts) and indeed when they’ve trailed at the break in 2019 they’re yet to come back to gain all 3 points (2 draws and 7 defeats).

Golden Week 2018 was the last time these two sides played a league match in Osaka with Levir Culpi’s struggling outfit earning a 1-0 victory over a Sendai team which on paper looked much stronger than this year’s crop, featuring as it did the likes of Ko Itakura, Hiroaki Okuno, Gakuto Notsuda and Takuma Nishimura, all now departed. Shu Kurata’s 62nd minute finish was all that separated them and although the talismanic Gamba number 10 is unlikely to take any part in this game due to a cheekbone fracture, the men in blue and black will be looking for a similar outcome against a Sendai side which has definitely punched above it’s weight this season following the departures of the aforementioned players.

Team News:
Gamba had Kim Young-gwon, Genta Miura and Yosuke Ideguchi away on international duty, but welcome all three back into a squad which is now only missing Shu Kurata through injury. Miyamoto usually likes to make a couple of small changes following a defeat, so I feel we could see the return of Yuya Fukuda down the left side in place of Hiroki Fujiharu. Other options for small tweaks could be bringing Ryu Takao back in for Shunya Suganuma at centre-back or perhaps changing the dynamic up-front with Kazuma Watanabe or Patric coming in to partner Takashi Usami and thus providing a big target for crosses or long balls.

Most of Sendai’s best performances in recent weeks have come with them operating the 4-4-2 system, although they have used 3-4-2-1 quite extensively in the recent past. I’m working on the basis that they’ll go 4-4-2 for this one. Polish ‘keeper Jakub Slowik, who joined the club as a mid-season replacement for the now departed Japanese international Daniel Schmidt will be between the sticks. Veteran centre-back Yasuhiro Hiraoka, who will make his 300th J1 appearance in this match, is likely to be partnered by versatile Mozambique international Simao Mate with Koji Hachisuka at right-back and assist-king Katsuya Nagato (9 assists, 2 goals in 27 J1 games in 2019) on the left. Club legend Shingo Tomita will anchor the midfield alongside Yoshiki Matsushita, an acquisition from Vissel Kobe last winter. Another winter 2018-19 signing, Ryohei Michibuchi (Ventforet Kofu) usually plays on the right-wing and in-form ex-Urawa and Cerezo winger Kunimutsu Sekiguchi is enjoying an Indian Summer in his career down the left (4 goals and 1 assist in 20 J1 games). Up front, 192cm former Gamba star Shun Nagasawa will likely be partnered by wily Brazilian Ramon Lopes, both forwards have found the net 6 times in the league this year and are currently Sendai’s top scorers. As noted earlier Simao Mate is able to play in more than one position, if he moves into central-midfield it could open the door for another former Gamba player, Kim Jung-ya, to come into their defence. Powerful forward Ryo Germain, ex-FC Tokyo attacker Takuma Abe and the vastly experienced Naoki Ishihara are likely to provide attacking re-inforcement from the bench.

Prediction:
Gamba haven’t lost at home in the league for 7 months and Vegalta are owners of the worst away record this season, but J1 is rarely that predictable. A draw for both teams would most probably make them mathematically safe from relegation, so I believe we will see a tight, tactical scuffle that Gamba will ultimately edge through a Takashi Usami strike which will take him to within one goal of Ademilson and Kurata at the top of the Gamba goalscoring charts.

As an aside, because of Labour Thanksgiving Day, this will be my 4th home game of the season. The results of the previous three are; 0-1 vs Urawa (Gamba’s last home league defeat), and 1-1 against Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata at either end of the Obon vacation. Goals scored by the opposition are Ewerton (Urawa) 87’, Leandro Pereira (Hiroshima) 90+2’ and Masato Nakayama (Iwata) 90+5’….so I guess what we can take from this is never give up Sendai….a 97th minute equaliser this time, anyone?

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26)
LWB 34 Yuya Fukuda (20)
DM 7 Yasuhito Endo (39)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23)
CM 21 Shinya Yajima (25)
CF 33 Ademilson (25)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23), 27 Ryu Takao (CB/RWB/23), 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (LWB/30), 11 David Concha (RW/LW/AM/23), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31), 18 Patric (CF/31), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33)