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Gamba Osaka 2021 ACL Group Stage Preview

2008 winners and 2015 semi-finalists Gamba Osaka have returned to Asia’s premier club competition after a four-year absence. The purpose of this article is to provide a guide for fans unfamiliar with the 2020 J1 runners up. However, I hope it proves to be equally informative for regular followers of JLeague as well.

2021 to date

Gamba opened up the year with a 1-0 defeat against Kawasaki Frontale in the Emperor’s Cup Final on New Year’s Day before going down 3-2 to the same opponents in the Super Cup seven and a half weeks later. The Nerazzurri (Gamba’s nickname) started off their J1 campaign with a disappointing 1-0 loss at neighbours Vissel Kobe on February 27th (that 0 will be important later) and were then rocked when a Covid cluster in the squad saw their fixture against Nagoya Grampus scheduled for March 3rd cancelled at the last minute and subsequently there was a gap of five weeks between the narrow defeat at Kobe and a 0-0 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima on April 3rd.

As both Vissel and Sanfrecce are tough, top-half opponents and Gamba had the Covid issues to deal with, neither result had alarm bells ringing. However, the failure to score started to become a bigger and bigger burden to bear and it wasn’t until their fifth league fixture of the year, a 1-0 away triumph over surprise packages Sagan Tosu, that Gamba bagged their opening goal of the campaign through talisman Takashi Usami whose low drive ended a goal drought that had lasted 428 minutes. Unfortunately, from a Gamba perspective (though fans of other JLeague teams have certainly been enjoying it), the floodgates failed to open and the Nerazzurri scored just once from open play in their next five outings which led to club legend (more for his playing career than his exploits as a manager) Tsuneyasu Miyamoto being shown the door after almost three years at the helm.

Academy Director Masanobu Matsunami is the man who has taken over from Miyamoto, albeit on a quasi-temporary basis. He was at the helm the only time Gamba were relegated down to J2 back in 2012. Though in his defence he inherited a mess, took 38 points from 31 games (enough to keep a team up 9.5 times out of 10, I’d say) and also had Gamba playing like a top half side once he got his message across in the second half of the year, amassing 25 points (good enough to tie for 8th (only 3 points off 4th) if projected across the whole season – excuses, excuses, I know, I know!) Matsunami initially opted for the loudmouth fan behind the net tactic of correcting an under-performing offence by going all out attack. A 3-0 drubbing at home to fierce rivals Urawa, with all the visitors goals coming through barely challenged counter-attacks inside the opening 40 minutes and a defeat away to fellow big-team strugglers FC Tokyo in which the decisive strike came in the first minute of the match, though later on green shoots of recovery could be spotted, saw Gamba return to type and pull out the 2020 Miyamoto 1-0 playbook again.

Seven points from the three J1 fixtures prior to the ACL break look good on paper, but arrived thanks to home wins over, bottom side Yokohama FC, and 13th placed Tokushima as well as an extremely tepid 0-0 at, admittedly tough to break down, Shonan. More important than the direness of that tired display on a Wednesday night down on the Kanagawa coast was the fact that Gamba were able to move out of the relegation zone (on goal difference) for the first time this year and owing to the Covid cluster they have 2-3 games in hand over the four teams ahead of them and the two sides just below (Kashiwa and Sendai) whom they are tied on points with. Bright sparks have been few and far between for the Nerazzurri in 2021 to date and aside from Dai Tsukamoto’s performance in the loss at FC Tokyo and some solid showings from former Japan Under-17 international Kohei Okuno, the biggest thing the club can be thankful for is that despite playing extremely poorly by their standards, they are no longer in the drop zone and can hopefully move onwards and upwards from here.



Go Oiwa is someone ACL fans should be familiar with as he coached Kashima Antlers to the title back in 2018. He was Gamba’s original target to take over from Miyamoto, however, the two parties were unable to agree terms and Matsunami has since been named boss in an extremely vaguely worded statement which appears to leave the door open for a replacement to come in at any given time. Matsunami has had his hand forced selection-wise due to the mountain of injuries the club have suffered. Indeed, some supporters have questioned the role of Physical Coach Takeshi Ikoma, who arrived from Albirex Niigata at the beginning of 2020 and has overseen injury crises, with a number of knocks picked up in training, in each of his two campaigns with the club.

Matsunami went 4-4-2 in his first two matches in charge before using 3-4-2-1 in his most recent four, with the switch likely coming as a result of the return from injury of South Korean international centre-back Kim Young-gwon, coupled with the loss of only fit left-back in the squad, Keisuke Kurokawa. Throw all that into the mix and even Gamba supporters are not quite sure what we’ll get in our ACL group games. At the time of writing (June 18th) the following players have injury doubts hanging over their heads, Jun Ichimori (goalkeeper – dislocated shoulder), Keisuke Kurokawa, Shin Won-ho (both left-back / left wing-backs) and Haruto Shirai (wing – recovering from knee surgery). Recent occupants of the treatment room, left-back Hiroki Fujiharu, playmaker Yuki Yamamoto and winger Yuji Ono all returned to the matchday squad for the Emperor’s Cup 2nd round win over Kwansei Gakuin University on June 16th while Yuya Fukuda and Keisuke Kurokawa were also declared fit enough to make the trip to Uzbekistan.

*Possible Gamba starting eleven vs Jeonbuk

Group H Fixtures

All times Japan Standard Time

25 June 23:00 Tampines Rovers
29 June 01:00 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
2 July 01:00 Chiangrai United
5 July 01:00 Chiangrai United
7 July 23:00 Tampines Rovers
10 July 23:00 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

The Squad



Goalkeepers

Masaaki Higashiguchi, a non-playing member of Japan’s 2018 World Cup squad, now in his 8th season with the club is the undisputed number 1 having only missed 6 J1 games since his move from Albirex Niigata in 2014. Regular backup Jun Ichimori is out which leaves career benchwarmer Kei Ishikawa and recent loan acquisition from Ehime FC, Taichi Kato waiting in the wings with formerly highly touted youth product Mizuki Hayashi seemingly well out of the picture. Those not so familiar with the JLeague might be interested to note that Japan Olympic squad member Kosei Tani is currently on loan to Shonan Bellmare from Gamba.

Centre Backs

Gamba are blessed with three excellent centre-backs, though it seems like one is is generally injured at any given time. Genta Miura captains the side and can play right-back in an emergency as he did vs FC Tokyo a few weeks ago. He has 10 caps for the Samurai Blue, though personally I would only really rate him as a solid J1 defender at best. Kim Young-gwon is captain of his country, South Korea and Gen Shoji has forced his way back into the Japan national set-up following an injury plagued eighteen months in France with Toulouse.

Other options are, veteran Shunya Suganuma, a solid backup who is definitely better when being rotated into the lineup rather than holding down a regular starting spot, and Yota Sato, a 22 year-old in his first season as a pro. Sato was rated as the best centre-back in Japanese varsity football in his senior year with Meiji University in 2020, but has had to endure a tough baptism this term. He made his first two starts out of position at right-back, the second of which came against the formidable Kaoru Mitoma of Kawasaki, before finally getting a shot at centre-back versus Shonan in Gamba’s last pre-ACL league fixture, where he struggled to deal with the physicality of Brazilian forward Wellington. Still, good things are expected of him and Gen Shoji has stated that he thinks highly of him.

Full-Backs / Wing-Backs

I implored the Gamba hierarchy to consider building depth at the right-back slot last winter with options such as Ryoya Morishita (Tosu, now Nagoya), Seiya Maikuma (Nagasaki), Nanasei Iino (Gunma, now Tosu), Kenta Fukumori (Kitakyushu, now Oita) and Hayato Kurosaki (Tochigi, now Oita) all available. No-one was brought in and the Nerazzurri have paid the price as Ryu Takao, a stand-out in that position last year has spent most of this campaign on the sidelines. He is fit now, so expect him to play a big part in Uzbekistan. Elsewhere, club legend Hiroki Fujiharu last started at left-back in Gamba’s second league fixture of 2021 at the beginning of April, his replacement Keisuke Kurokawa recently disappeared from the squad with an unknown injury and utility player / ikemen (Japanese for hunk) Yuya Fukuda has also been absent since the Osaka Derby at the start of May. Fujiharu got 30 minutes under his belt in the Emperor’s Cup this week, but there are big question marks over how much Kurokawa and Fukuda will be able to contribute and this may lead to a case of square-pegs-in-round-holes at times. Kohei Okuno, Yota Sato or Kosuke Onose can play right-back at a push and Kim Young-gwon could go to left-back in a back four. A more likely scenario is a back three with wing backs.

Central Midfielders

Gamba possess a lot of depth in this area, but so far in 2021 they’ve struggled to find the right combination and there has even been talk of bringing back 41 year-old club legend Yasuhito Endo from J2 side Júbilo Iwata to try and remedy the issues. Yosuke Ideguchi, seemingly a certain starter for Japan in the 2018 World Cup until an ill-fated move to Europe put the brakes on his career, is now with his boyhood club once more and had regained top form before injury sidelined him again last November, however he’s struggled to reach his previous heights since returning this season. Ideguchi’s partner in crime for most of 2020 was Yuki Yamamoto, then a rookie out of Kwansei Gakuin University, but he has battled with injuries and form for most of this campaign to date. Jeonbuk supporters will be very familiar with Ju Se-jong, a player I described as a ‘Rolls-Royce of a signing’ earlier in the year, however, his confidence and performance levels have rather gone down with the ship since then and he can’t consider himself a regular starter just yet. Shinya Yajima’s versatility gets him a lot of playing time, and although the dyed-in-the-wool Urawa man has won over the Curva Nord faithful, the nagging doubts that he goes missing in important games persist in my mind. Finally a mention for young Kohei Okuno, a small ray of light in an otherwise gloomy campaign for the Nerazzurri, I’d have him starting alongside Ideguchi in my first choice eleven, but given the packed schedule all of the aforementioned players will get a shot and it’ll be interesting to see who wins out in the end.



Wingers

A pretty broad church in here as 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1 formations have all been used at various times this season. Kosuke Onose is a right winger who made the step up to J1 with a bang in 2018, however his most recent eighteen months with the club have been far less impressive than his explosive first year-and-a-half in Suita (location of Gamba’s stadium). Shu Kurata came through the ranks with the Nerazzurri and often captained the side in Miura’s absence last year. You’ll likely see him topping distance covered and number of sprints stats at half-time in games, though at 32 his absolute peak may be behind him.

Wellington Silva joined up with the squad midway through the campaign due to strict immigration restrictions for new arrivals to Japan. He hasn’t had much action yet, but in brief flashes he’s teased the Gamba support that he could bring much needed X-factor to the attack, particularly if he can build a decent rapport with countrymen Leandro Pereira and Patric. Takashi Usami is a club legend and my favourite player (I have his #39 uniform). More known for playing just off the main forward during the majority of his time with Gamba, he’s operated mostly on the flanks this season. This is his 3rd spell with his boyhood team following stints in Germany with Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim, Augsburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf. He’s represented his country 27 times and played at the 2018 World Cup.

Dai Tsukamoto is a youth team product of whom good things are expected. Personally, I spent my 18th birthday doing a Media Studies exam followed by watching England vs Argentina at the 2002 World Cup on TV, while young Tsukamoto scored a hat-trick for Gamba’s U23 side against Gainare Tottori in J3 on his, different worlds, eh! Able to play on either flank and also as a central striker, the Osaka native found himself in the unfamiliar left wing-back position for Gamba’s three most recent J1 outings as all natural options in that area were injured and he was the next cab off the rank.

Much travelled Brazilian Tiago Alves has spent time with numerous Korean and Japanese sides, but a number of lengthy spells on the sidelines appear to have removed the spark from his game and he’s unlikely to make the cut due to tournament restrictions on foreign player numbers. Yuji Ono, like Tiago Alves a year later, was a bit of a bolter signing from Sagan Tosu. Both players came with talented, but injury prone reputations and unfortunately Ono lived up to that billing exactly with an impressive start to 2020 where he usurped Shu Kurata from the starting eleven before damaging knee ligaments last August. He’s only played 17 minutes this year and it remains to be seen how sharp he’ll be if called upon in Uzbekistan. Finally, young Shuhei Kawasaki was a revelation for Gamba’s U23 side in 2019 and the first half of 2020 which earned him a promotion to the top team. However, it hasn’t been plain sailing for him in J1 and recently he’s found himself well out of the picture.


Centre Forwards

There are three main centre-forwards currently on the books at Gamba, 2 Brazilians, Patric and Leandro Pereira as well as Kazunari Ichimi a Kumamoto-native recruited out of Ozu High School (Kumamoto) in 2016 and now back at the club following loan spells with Kyoto Sanga (2019) and Yokohama FC (2020). He can also play in the right shadow position just off the central striker. Patric is a fans favourite and member of the famous 2014 treble winning side where he and Usami combined to great effect, he’s now in his second spell with Gamba after a prolific two year stint in Hiroshima. Speaking of forwards who count Sanfrecce among their former clubs, Leandro Pereira was J1’s 3rd top marksman in 2020 with 15 goals, however, he’s found it difficult to hit the ground running with a late arrival due to quarantine and a niggling shoulder problem hindering him. Still, his double in the home win over Yokohama FC hinted at what he is capable of and if Gamba can find a way to utilise him as well as Sanfrecce did then his capture should pay dividends in the long run.