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Urawa Red Diamonds vs Gamba Osaka 22 November 2020 Match Preview

Urawa Red Diamonds vs Gamba Osaka
J1 2020 Round 28
Saitama Stadium 2002
Sunday 22 November 16:00


Last Time Out

If anyone reading this blog is new to Japanese football then Gamba’s home game with Vegalta Sendai gave you a taste of what you’re in for. Gamba started the day in 2nd place, unbeaten in their previous 12 league outings, while their visitors, who had never won in Suita in their entire history were bottom of the pile and hadn’t tasted victory for 18 matches. The final result, 4-0 to Sendai, of course.

Gamba have had a great season up until now, so I’m going to be mercifully brief with this match report and won’t dwell on their failings too much. October J1 Manager of the Month Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (good to see that curse applies everywhere) made five changes to the lineup from the game against Kobe 3 days previously. In came, Gen Shoji, Hiroki Fujiharu, Shinya Yajima, Kazuma Watanabe and Shoji Toyama (first J1 start) for Kim Young-gwon, Yuya Fukuda, Kosuke Onose, Patric and Takashi Usami. The spine of the team that has performed so well in 2020, Kim, Ideguchi and Usami were all gone and with them Gamba’s spark disappeared too, there was lots of neat passing from side-to-side, but no real penetration or urgency. Shoji made a pretty shaky return to top-team action and the defensive structure as a whole was off with Gamba never really coming to grips with the problems caused by Sendai’s front three. Nerazzurri old boy Shun Nagasawa helped himself to a hat-trick which doubled his tally for the year and on-loan FC Tokyo defender Takahiro Yanagi finished off the rout by waltzing through a non-existent defence to shoot past Masaaki Higashiguchi in the home goal.

With a double header coming up in Kanto against Urawa and Kawasaki, it felt like Gamba completely overlooked Sendai in this encounter and went in with the attitude that just turning up was enough. Maybe with Vegalta’s form to date in 2020 and, in particular, their woeful 3-0 reverse at the hands of Tosu a week earlier, this might have been an easy mistake to mate, however, the side from Miyagi needed a reaction in this game and they certainly got one. They were more determined than their hosts from the first whistle and Gamba will need to hope that they’ve vomited everything up in one go and got it out of their system ahead of the remaining 6 league fixtures. The only other positives I can take are that some youngsters got playing time (Ren Shibamoto finally made his J1 debut off the bench) and Cerezo also lost to bottom-half opponents meaning this was effectively a free-hit (I would have preferred Nagoya and Tokyo to finish 0-0, but, hey, Grampus still have to play out their final matches without a striker).

Urawa Red Diamonds vs Gamba Osaka Match Lowdown

One of Japan’s fiercest rivalries is back for another installment with 2nd placed Gamba travelling to Urawa, a team who currently lie in 8th position, 10 points behind the Nerazzurri with an extra game played. Owing to the uneven nature of the J1 schedule this year, it seems highly likely that Reds will overtake Yokohama F.Marinos at some point, but they are extremely vulnerable to attack from Hiroshima and Kashiwa, so this match will be of extreme importance to them.

By kick-off on Sunday, visitors Gamba will have had 8 days to contemplate their 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Sendai. They would actually do well to ask their hosts for some advice as Urawa have slammed 11 past Vegalta in their home 2 matches against them this year (1 in J1 and 1 in the Levain Cup.) This game marks the start of Gamba’s final push towards the end of this gruelling campaign with another away tie against Kawasaki following on Wednesday before they return to Suita to face Sagan Tosu on Sunday November 29th. After that, December is a pretty easy ride for the Nerazzurri with only 3 league fixtures awaiting, Shonan (a) on the 6th, followed by 10 days break before Yokohama FC (a) on the 16th and Shimizu (h) on the 19th.

Gamba’s 4-0 trouncing at the hands of Sendai is such an outlier in the context of this year that it defies analysis and I’m basically going to avoid doing so unless that level of performance becomes more of a habit. Prior to that, the 3-0 reversal at Kashiwa in September was the men from Suita’s worst result of the year, and is, in fact, their only road loss in 2020. This generally excellent sequence of scorelines sees Gamba sit 2nd in J1, 17 points off leaders Kawasaki, who can clinch the title with a win away to Oita on Saturday (they may have done so by the time you read this), Nagoya (3 points behind with an extra game played) and Cerezo (6 points back with a game less in the bank) are their only realistic challengers for second and it would take a pretty erratic set of results to see the blue and black side miss out on 2021 ACL qualification.

As alluded to earlier, Gamba’s away form has been the foundation on which they’ve built their season. Their current away points total sits at 30 which is more than the overall tally of J1’s 5 bottom clubs, bizarrely almost double that of last week’s conquerors, Sendai (18). Solid defence on the road has been key with just 12 goals conceded in 13 games, only Kawasaki (10) have let in fewer. My big stat for this week is that Gamba have trailed in just 3 of their 13 away fixtures this season, Nagoya (2-2), Sendai (4-1) and Kashiwa (0-3), incredibly they’ve only been behind for 153 out of a total 1,170 minutes playing time. Anything other than a defeat on Sunday will ensure that Gamba post their best away points total since returning to J1 in 2014. For the record those figures look like this, 2016 (30), 2014 (28), 2015 (27), 2017 (26), 2019 (20) and 2018 (14).

Now let’s take a deep dive on our opponents Urawa Red Diamonds. The Saitama-based side have had an up-and-down campaign on home soil this year, winning 5 and losing 6. Ominously for Gamba, Reds’ best home results have been in their previous 2 fixtures, Sendai (6-0) and Cerezo (3-1), however, prior to that they’d gone 5 games without a win in front of their own supporters, a run that included 4 successive losses without scoring. Following this match, Urawa have only 2 remaining home fixtures, Shonan and Sapporo, so they will definitely be confident of seeing out their schedule in Saitama without any further blemishes.

As gloated about below in the ‘Head to Head’ section, Urawa were Gamba’s closest title rival back in 2014 and that marked the midway point of a run of excellent league form where they achieved 4 top 3 finishes in 5 years. That success was largely based on excellent signings from other J1 sides, namely the likes of Nishikawa, Makino and Kashiwagi (all ex-Hiroshima), Koroki (Kashima), Aoki (Omiya) and Muto (Sendai), however, in recent seasons they seem to have lost their midas touch in the transfer market somewhat. Curacaoan winger Quenten Martinus is the team’s form player at the moment, but he has largely flattered to deceive since moving from Yokohama F.Marinos in 2018. Former Tricolore team-mate Ryosuke Yamanaka, who set up Martinus for the winner at Kobe on Wednesday, boasts good assist stats, but question marks persist over his defensive capabilities and in recent weeks he’s struggled to hold down his place ahead of every J1 referee’s best friend Tomoya Ugajin (6 yellow cards in 14 games this season). Elsewhere former Cerezo striker Kenyu Sugimoro (he’s never going to get a fair shake on a blog like this, eh) has as many league goals as yellow cards this season (and not in a Juanma Delgado sort of way where he has loads of both) and left-winger Koya Yuruki has shown flashes of what he’s capable in recent appearances, but is still searching for consistency at this level.

Head-coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki’s job is on a very shaky peg at the moment after leading one of Japan’s biggest clubs to a 14th place finish last time out and getting bogged down in mid-table this year with some particularly painful defeats thrown into the mix, Nagoya and Marinos (both 6-2 away) and Kashiwa (4-0 home). It’s been rumoured that Cho Kwi-jae (he of Shonan Bellmare power harassment scandal fame) is in line to take over for next season and this is likely to bring about a number of changes at Urawa if it goes ahead. Despite banging in 11 goals in 26 J1 games, Brazilian forward Leonardo hasn’t started any of the past 10 matches (Gamba may be in the market for a dynamic, young Brazilian forward this winter… nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and any new coach must find a way to get Shinzo Koroki and Leonardo into the same starting eleven, as to date they’ve netted 20 of Reds 41 J1 goals between them.

Next year will likely see more emphasis on youth, not generally a strong point for Reds. Midfielders Atsuki Ito (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Tomokai Okubo (Chuo University) are on designated special player contracts this year and will turn pro in 2021, as will youth team ‘keeper Zion Suzuki who already stands 189cm at the age of 18. Defenders Yudai Fujiwara (Aomori Yamada High School) and Ryuya Fukushima (Urawa Youth) are also locked in, with holding midfielder Yuta Miyamoto (Ryutsu Keizai University) to follow in 2022. If Cho potentially does take over, could we see promising Shonan midfielders Daiki Kaneko and Mitsuki Saito take the well worn path from Hiratsuka to Saitama? Urawa posted the best attendance figures in J1 in 2019 with an average of 34,184 per game, so they have been hit harder than anyone by the COVID-era restrictions, Brazilians Mauricio and Fabricio left mid-season and haven’t been replaced, it will be interesting to see if they genuinely do go down the path of rearing their own talent.

Head to Head

Urawa ran out 3-1 winners at Panasonic Stadium back in August with Gamba’s poor defending meaning they deserved nothing from the game, even if the final score rather flattered our visitors. The Nerazzurri have been victorious on their 2 previous league trips to Saitama, Yuya Fukuda’s first J1 goal on the final day last season and Kosuke Onose’s rasping half-volley which put Gamba on their way to a 7th consecutive victory back in 2018 were my personal highlights from those clashes. I’m sure all supporters of a blue and black persuasion get goosebumps thinking about the late smash-and-grab 2-0 win back in the treble-winning season of 2014, less so the 2016 edition of this contest when Ademilson was sent off for some impulsive stupidity (there’s a theme here), which wasn’t helped by Tomoaki Makino’s theatrics, and Reds eventually romped to a 4-0 victory.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Yuji Ono (knee surgery – season) and Ademilson (club suspension) are definite absentees. A cloud of uncertainty surrounds club captain Genta Miura who returned as a substitute in the Osaka Derby on November 3rd, but wasn’t in the squad for either the Kobe or Sendai games. Yosuke Ideguchi picked up an injury in training on November 9th and has missed the last 2 matches, there are conflicting reports doing the rounds about how serious his problem is. Takashi Usami and Kim Young-gwon both sat out the home shellacking from Vegalta, though I believe they were just being rested. Stand-in skipper Shu Kurata will make his 300th JLeague appearance for Gamba in this game (271 J1 and 28 in J2 to date).

I thought I’d also give a brief round-up of recent Gamba transfer news and gossip.

In: Meiji University centre-back Yota Sato is the only confirmed 2021 signing so far. Gamba have been linked with South Korean international central midfielder Ju Se-jong from FC Seoul, he, of course, turned down a move to Japan last winter. Playmaker Riki Harakawa from cash-strapped Sagan Tosu is also on the Nerazzurri’s radar, though Urawa and Cerezo have been credited with interest too. In my opinion, he’d be most likely to play at Urawa and his team-mate Daiki Matsuoka would be much more Miguel Angel Lotina’s cup of tea, I would have thought. (this was written before the news Lotina’s contract wouldn’t be renewed, maybe Hirakawa will take Hiroshi Nanami’s fancy?)

Out: Veteran forward Kazuma Watanabe looks set for a move to Yokohama FC, where at the age of 34 he’d probably be considered an up-and-coming youngster fnar fnar. Shimizu S-Pulse were also thought to have been in the running, but it seems like Watanabe will return to Kanagawa for the first time since 2011 with the on-loan Kazunari Ichimi coming back to his parent club for next season.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Versatile winger Takahiro Sekine went off injured in the away draw with Hiroshima on November 3rd and hasn’t featured since, while central midfielder Kai Shibato last appeared as a sub in the 6-0 rout of Sendai on October 18th, it’s unclear whether his absence is due to injury or non-selection. Club legend Yosuke Kashiwagi seems to be getting phased out of the top-team picture this year, mustering only 9 J1 appearances to date and he last made the matchday squad in the aforementioned Sendai game where he was an unused replacement. Centre-back Daisuke Suzuki has made just one solitary start since largely carrying the can for the 6-2 annihilation at Nagoya back on August 8th, it’s highly unlikely he has any future in Saitama beyond this current campaign. Rejuvenated winger Martinus stands to make his 100th J1 appearance in this game and much maligned striker Kenyu Sugimoto could play his 50th J1 match for Urawa. Centre-backs Tomoaki Makino and Thomas Deng, as well as central midfielders Ewerton and Kai Shibato are all walking a suspension tightrope with 3 yellow cards apiece. Dangerous forward Shinzo Koroki (9 goals in 24 games) needs just 1 more to reach double figures in J1 for the 9th successive season.

Predicted Line Ups

Gamba are likely to field a much stronger side than they did against Vegalta last week, though they will be mindful of the tough games they have coming up in the next 7 days. Alternatives to the side below would be, Suganuma in for either Kim or Shoji if they have any fitness issues. I believe Yuya Fukuda will come back in for Hiroki Fujiharu, but it’s possible that Miyamoto will stick with the veteran. In the centre of the park I’ve perhaps gone with hope over expectation by selecting Yosuke Ideguchi there, if he’s unavailable, promising youngster Kohei Okuno and Reds-old boy Shinya Yajima are contenders to take his place. On the bench, Dai Tsukamoto’s excellent strike against Hachinohe in J3 could see him promoted to the pine and I’d love to see Ren Shibamoto get another chance to shine.



Urawa’s selection has been very consistent lately, making my job of predicting their starters that bit easier. At left-back Yamanaka may very well get the nod ahead of Ugajin and Iwanami remains an option at centre-back, though after blanking Kobe in midweek, Makino and Deng is the most likely combination. Brazilian Ewerton, a scorer at Panasonic Stadium last year, may return in place of Aoki in the midfield engine-room after it was revealed that the latter is set to join FC Tokyo for next season. In attack I’ve opted for Leonardo over Muto, though Reds number 9 scored in the 3-1 win over Gamba earlier this season and generally combines well with Koroki.



Match Prediction

A tough one to call, for me Urawa haven’t looked great this year, but they can grind out good results. Gamba will be looking to bounce back from last week’s embarrassment and will come into this game safe in the knowledge that they’ve scored 3 times in each of their previous 3 visits to Saitama Stadium. I’ll opt for a reasonably entertaining 2-2 draw which won’t particularly suit either side, but won’t be a disaster.

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Gamba vs Urawa Match Preview 19 Aug 2020

Gamba Osaka vs Urawa Red Diamonds
J1 2020 Round 11
Panasonic Stadium Suita
Wednesday 19 August 19:00 (JST)


It’s grudge match time as Gamba, fresh from a weekend off, following the COVID-19 enforced postponement of their match at Sagan Tosu, face rivals Urawa Red Diamonds. It will be the first game in ten days for Gamba’s top team while Reds are coming straight from a gruelling 90 minutes against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Who will prevail in the heat and humidity of Panasonic Stadium?

Last Time Out

For analysis of Gamba’s 2-1 wins at home to Yokohama FC in J1 and away to Shonan Bellmare in the Levain Cup let me point you in the direction of my previous post, Gamba News 13/08/20, and you can find all the coverage in there. Now to our upcoming opponents Urawa who hosted Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday night.

Urawa bounced back from their 6-2 pasting at Nagoya in the previous round by taking all 3 points and keeping a clean sheet against a dominant Hiroshima. The home side went ahead in just the 5th minute following their first attack of the match. Brazilian hitman Leonardo threaded a lovely through ball in the direction of left-winger Koya Yuruki which caused Sanfrecce’s right wing-back Rhayner to slide in. To me it looked like the contact was minimal but due to the rash nature of the defender’s lunge, he gave the referee a decision to make and, in fairness, his team-mates had few complaints. Reds’ top marksmen Leonardo took on the responsibility from the spot, did a Diego Oliveira-esque stuttering run up and coolly sent Keisuke Osako the wrong way to give the home side the lead.

After that early Urawa strike, the rest of the game was essentially one way traffic with Hiroshima camped in Reds half and ‘keeper Shusaku Nishikawa turning in an inspired display to keep his former side at bay. As he always seems to be when I watch Sanfre, Brazilian Leandro Pereira was the main threat for the men in purple. He forced a brilliant save from Nishikawa when he outjumped Daiki Hashioka and Thomas Deng in the seventeenth minute to get to Rhayner’s cross and powered a header across Urawa’s number one, however, the stopper was equal to the task and forced it away for a corner. Pereira executed a spectacular bicycle kick just four minutes later, but again there was no beating Nishikawa.

Into the second half and it was still a one-sided affair, Sanfrecce switched their wing backs with Tomoya Fujii and particularly Yusuke Chajima causing problems with crossed balls into the box, but still Urawa remained steadfast. The home team themselves changed things up, introducing Takuya Iwanami to form a back three alongside Deng and Tomoaki Makino which saw Reds revisit their 3-4-2-1 formation of previous years, though in reality it was more of 5-4-1. Leonardo made way for Kenyu Sugimoto and didn’t look happy about it as Hiroshima continued to press. Nishikawa saved well from Pereira who shot from a tight angle, and again from Rhayner’s header while Tsukasa Morishima fired wide and Shunki Higashi’s header suffered the same fate. Eventually Sanfrecce were reduced to attempting speculative efforts from distance as substitute Gakuto Notsuda tried his luck a couple of times. However, it was not to be their night and the Reds won by a solitary goal which moved them up to 6th in the standings, just two points shy of Gamba’s total with a game more played.

Tactical Notes

Not a whole lot to report regarding Gamba, we now know that the lineup selected for the match against Yokohama FC is what Miyamoto considers to be his strongest. In addition, with all first-choice members fit it is unlikely that we’ll see any deviation from the 3-5-2 set-up regardless of who the opposition is. I talked previously about second half fatigue and Lionel Piguet also gave a great rundown of that on the J-Talk Pod last week, coming off a ten day break since the Yokohama game, it will be no excuse against a battle-worn Urawa.

Speaking of our opponents from Saitama, they seem to have bucked the trend tactically in J1 by changing from a 3-4-2-1 formation last year to a more orthodox 4-4-2 in 2020. Reds head coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki is under pressure following a woeful 13th place finish in the league last season and heavy defeats to Kashiwa and Nagoya this time round. That said, his side currently sit in the top six so perhaps his decision to change things up has begun to bear fruit.

Having watched the Red Diamonds games at Nagoya and at home to Hiroshima it has been tough trying to work out what their attacking strategy is as, truth be told, they didn’t do a whole lot of attacking in either game. Off-season signing from Albirex Niigata, Leonardo is key for them and has scored over 50% of their league goals in 2020 (7 of 12). From what I’ve seen, the men from Saitama don’t like playing the ball out from the back like most of their J1 opponents, instead they aim to quickly move it forward and play long passes from the midfield into attack, then hope to build from there, either in the form of quick one-twos or working the ball out wide. With the ageing Yosuke Kashiwagi not seeing a lot of game time recently, creativity in midfield has been a bit of an issue as they tend to play with two holding midfielders. Takahiro Sekine is a useful outlet on either flank, but doubts persist over whether Koya Yuruki is really up to the challenge of playing for such a big club. Additionally, in attack, an injury to Shinzo Koroki, coupled with a loss of form for the likes of Kenyu Sugimoto, Yuki Muto and Martinus means that they are way too reliant on Leonardo for goals, it seems like if you can stop him, you can stop Reds.

In summary, Gamba come into this game fresh, and hotter favourites to win than they’ve been in recent seasons. It’s difficult to get a good read on Urawa as they were thrashed 6-2 two matches ago, but basically everything Nagoya touched that day turned to gold, while last week they held on for dear life for a good 85 minutes at home to Hiroshima. Gamba will surely enjoy the lions share of possession and territory with Urawa looking to clear their lines quickly and counter. The re-introduction of Tomoaki Makino alongside Thomas Deng in central defence as well as the return of Takuya Iwanami gives the Reds rearguard a more solid feel to it. They have been vulnerable against crosses into the box for years and although they defended such attacks efficiently against Sanfrecce, I’m sure Patric will be licking his lips in anticipation of grabbing a third goal in as many games.

Statistical Noise

Gamba Osaka

* Gamba haven’t beaten Urawa at home since 2016 when Takashi Usami’s early strike was enough to give them the three points. Since returning to J1 in 2014 Gamba’s home record against Urawa stands at P6 W 2 D 2 L 2 F 4 A 4, Gamba have failed to score in half of these games.
* Gamba currently sit on 19 points after 9 matches played which compares to just 7 points at the same stage last year and 2018.
* At present Gamba sit third in J1, two points behind second placed Cerezo with a game in hand, the last time they were so high in the standings was after round 19 of the 2017 season when they saw off their city rivals 3-1 at Panasonic Stadium.

Urawa Red Diamonds

* Urawa have taken nine points from their first five away games, however there appears to be a clear split in the results. Their three wins have come against sides in the bottom half, Shonan (3-2), Sendai (2-1), Yokohama FC (2-0), however, both their matches against top half sides have ended in defeat, FC Tokyo (0-2), Nagoya Grampus (2-6)
* Reds only kept one J1 clean sheet under the stewardship of Tsuyoshi Otsuki in 2019, but have already prevented the opposition from scoring on four occasions this time round, Yokohama F.Marinos, Kashima and Hiroshima at home as well as Yokohama FC away.
* Leonardo has scored 58% of Urawa’s league goals in 2020, five of his seven strikes (71%) have come on the road.

Team News

Gamba Osaka

Ryo Shinzato is the only injury doubt in the Gamba squad, the on-loan Jubilo Iwata defender has failed to feature in any competition since the home Levain Cup tie with Kashiwa in February, though there has still been no official announcement by the club. Jun Ichimori has now played a couple of games for the U23s in J3, but as yet has been unable to dislodge Kei Ishikawa from his spot on the bench and also played second fiddle to the former Tosu man against Shonan last Wednesday. It appears Shunya Suganuma is raring to go again after captaining a young Gamba in the Levain Cup while Gen Shoji, Kosuke Onose and Ademilson all seem to be fit and firing.

Urawa Red Diamonds

Legendary striker Shinzo Koroki has missed Reds past three games after being substituted against Yokohama FC last month, his continued absence places a huge goalscoring burden on Leonardo. Elsewhere, due to rotation in the squad, it’s difficult to know who’s unfit and who’s just not in favour with the coaching staff. Those I believe most likely to be suffering from a knock are, Brazilian centre-back Mauricio, who had a great game in this fixture last year, he, like Koroki, hasn’t been seen since the Yokohama FC match. His compatriot Fabricio was last spotted in the 4-0 home drubbing at the hands of Kashiwa four game weeks back and ex-Yokohama F.Marinos attacker Martinus has been absent for five matches.

Know Your Opponent – Urawa Red Diamonds

Head Coach: Tsuyoshi Otsuki – Appointed 28 May 2019 – Record P31 W 9 D 10 L 12 F 36 A 49 Points Per Game 1.2 Failed to score 8 Clean Sheets 5.

GK #1 Shusaku Nishikawa © – Captain fantastic for the Reds, former Oita, Hiroshima and Japan national team stopper Nishikawa has been part of the furniture in Saitama since his move in 2014. He produced a wonderful display to thwart his former charges last Saturday and despite no longer being involved with the national team he remains an excellent J1 level ‘keeper.

RB #27 Daiki Hashioka – Urawa’s brightest young talent in my books, 182cm tall Hashioka already has 2 national team caps to his name. He was the target for a bizarre tactic of playing every long ball directly to him in last year’s match between these two, that strategy met with zero success, although Urawa did emerge victorious in the end.

RCB #20 Thomas Deng – Kenyan born, Australian international who was recruited from Melbourne Victory last off-season. He has had a tough baptism into the Reds defence owing to the high turnover of centre-back partners he’s had. If he can play regularly alongside Makino then I’d expect him to develop into a top-quality player.

LCB #5 Tomoaki Makino – Vastly experienced club legend who like Nishikawa and Kashiwagi followed former boss Mihailo Petrovic on the well worn track from Hiroshima to Saitama. Makino’s route was slightly more complex as it came via an unsuccessful loan spell with Koln in the German Bundesliga, but he has now called Urawa home since 2012. The 38 times capped defender who has made J1’s Best Eleven on three separate occasions was out of the starting lineup at the beginning of the campaign, but is now back to restore stability. A big character in the dressing room, he will probably be disappointed that Gamba fans won’t be able to jeer him due to the COVID-19 supporter regulations.

LB #3 Tomoya Ugajin – A one-club man, full-back or wing-back Ugajin initially joined Urawa as a designated special player from Ryutsu Keizai University in 2009 and after signing his first pro-contract the following year has gone onto make over 250 league appearances. He has been back up to the younger Ryosuke Yamanaka for most of the season, but his superior defensive skills saw him earn a recall against Hiroshima.

RCM #29 Kai Shibato – A solid, if unspectacular option in the middle of the park, 24 year-old Shibato comes from solid stock, having attended the excellent Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba before completing his education at Meiji University. He joined Urawa in 2018, but initially struggled to make an impact, though since mid-2019 he has become much more of a first choice in the Reds engine room.

LCM #8 Ewerton – Currently in the second year of his loan-spell from Portuguese giants FC Porto, Gamba fans will remember Ewerton well as the man who won last year’s fixture at Panasonic Stadium with a low drive in the 87th minute. He has been in and out of the Urawa side since his arrival at the beginning of 2019, but definitely brings more of a goal threat than his rivals for this position such as Takuya Aoki.

RW #41 Takahiro Sekine – Now in his second spell at the club following a disappointing year in Europe with FC Ingolstadt 04 in Germany and the Japanese enclave that is Sint-Truidense V.V. in Belgium. A lively player who can play on either wing or even just off the main striker, as yet, in part two of his Reds career, he has struggled to match the form which got him the move to Europe in the first place.

LW #24 Koya Yuruki – Came to Saitama at the beginning of last year following some impressive displays for Montedio Yamagata in J2. Initially he struggled to find a place in the 3-4-2-1 formation, however, since Urawa started using 4-4-2 he’s been a regular on the left wing. Question marks remain over his output as he’s yet to register a single goal or assist in nine appearances to date this year, he’ll be looking to amend those stats before much longer.

RCF #45 Leonardo – Top scorer in J3 with Gainare Tottori in 2018, top scorer in J2 with Albirex Niigata in 2019, top scorer for Reds so far this season. Young Brazilian forward Leonardo also has his sights set on a potential Japan national team call up in the future and with 59 goals in his first 78 JLeague appearances across the divisions he’d surely be a welcome addition to the Samurai Blue ranks.

LCF #14 Kenyu Sugimoto – Tall, ex-Cerezo forward who like former team-mate Yoichiro Kakitani has had a career of one or two epic highs surrounded by years of average displays. Across 2016-2017 Sugimoto found the back of the net 36 times in 75 league games (2016 was spent in J2 while 2017 was in J1), remove those years from the equation and you are left with a career record of 191 league appearances and just 29 goals. Unfortunately for Urawa this is one transfer they seem to have blundered on as 2 goals in his first 30 league matches is not what they were looking for. I’m fully aware that after me having a go at his goalscoring record, he’ll no doubt net the winner on Wednesday.

Other Options – One-time Vissel Kobe defender Takuya Iwanami made a return from the bench against Hiroshima on Saturday and is a good option at centre-back. In midfield there are plenty of choices, former club captain Yosuke Kashiwagi would surely bring a creative spark if selected for this one, while ex-Omiya man Takuya Aoki is a capable holding player and the versatile Kazuki Nagasawa can play all across the centre of the park. In attack, Yuki Muto at one time formed one of the most lethal combinations in the league with Shinzo Koroki, though his star has somewhat faded in the past 18 months. I like Kosuke Taketomi as a player but he hasn’t been given much of a shout since returning from a decent loan spell with Shonan last summer. Finally, young Ryotaro Ito spent the previous two and a half years on loan with Mito and Oita and is now trying to force his way into Urawa’s top team.

Predicted Lineups





Match Prediction

I’m actually feeling in quite confident mood ahead of this one, though I will qualify that by saying that neither of these teams have played particularly attractive football so far in 2020. I’m going for a 2-0 home win, Usami to get the ball rolling in the first half before Patric finishes off a tough, physical encounter late on.

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J1 Recap June 2020

With the JLeague’s return almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take a refresher course on what’s been happening at each club over the previous few months.

Back in February I published a 2-part J1 preview, this article is intended to be a companion to that, so I’d like to take this chance to point you in the direction of those 2 previews (my most popular articles to date) if you’re in search of more reading material.

*All clubs are listed in the order they finished the 2019 season.

Yokohama F.Marinos

2019: 1st
Kantoku: Ange Postecoglou (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Marinos averaged exactly 2 goals per game in J1 last year (68 goals in 34 games)

Recap:
Last season’s champions enjoyed a mixed start to 2020, recording impressive wins away to Jeonbuk (2-1) and home to Sydney FC (4-0) in the Asian Champions League. Domestically things weren’t so bright as they lost to Kobe in an infamously bad penalty shoot-out in the Super Cup before being beaten 2-1 on their own patch by Gamba in the first round of J1.

Squad Update:
Former captain Jun Amano (28 years old) has returned from a year-long loan at Belgian side Sporting Lokeren. Amano, with over 100 games already under his belt for Marinos will be re-united with Lokeren team-mate, former Renofa Yamaguchi and Kashiwa Reysol full-back, Ryota Koike, who has joined the champions on a permanent basis. Experienced Avispa Fukuoka centre-back Yuki Saneto has also moved east to Kanagawa to provide cover for the injured Thiago Martins. Youth team forward Takumi Tsukui has been promoted to the top team, while Kokoku High School trio, Shunsuke Hirai (DF), Ryunosuke Kabayama (MF) and Tomoki Tagawa (GK), have been registered on designated special player contracts ahead of full-time moves in 2021.
Despite ‘keeper Park Il-gyu being ruled out for the first 2 months of the re-start, the current squad looks stronger than last year and with no ACL return on the immediate horizon they should be there or thereabouts come the end of season.

Week 1:
vs Gamba Osaka (h) 1-2


FC Tokyo

2019: 2nd
Kantoku: Kenta Hasegawa (3rd year)
Quick Stat: FC Tokyo’s average attendance of 31,540 in 2019 was the highest in the club’s history.

Recap:
Kenta Hasegawa’s men kicked off their year with a 2-0 triumph over Ceres from the Philippines in torrential rain to earn a spot in the Asian Champions League group stage. They backed that up with an impressive 1-1 draw at Ulsan before edging out Perth Glory 1-0 at home. Then, the newly formed Brazilian front trio of Diego Oliveira, Leandro and Adailton all scored late on to inspire them to a 3-1 win at Shimizu S-Pulse in round 1 of J1 2020.

Squad Update:
Korean winger Na Sang-ho’s loan departure for Seongnam FC in his homeland is the biggest piece of transfer news to come out of Ajinomoto Stadium during the break. The highly-touted 23 year-old had struggled to make an impression since his move from Gwangju at the beginning of last season so this wasn’t a major shock.
The other major story to report is that the club have scrapped their J3 Under-23 side citing a lack of available stadia, this meant that their one lockdown signing, 20 year-old Thai midfielder Chayathorn Tapsuvanavon, who joined on loan from Bangkok United at the start of March, returned to Thailand in late June having seen no competitive action.

Week 1:
vs Shimizu S-Pulse (a) 3-1
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Kashima Antlers

2019: 3rd
Kantoku: Zago (new)
Quick Stat: Kashima are the most successful team in J1 history with 8 league titles.

Recap:
After losing in the final of the Emperor’s Cup to Vissel Kobe on January 1st, perennial Japanese giants Kashima then replaced outgoing coach Go Oiwa with Brazilian Zago and made a host of new signings. The bedding in period was not smooth and the men from Ibaraki found themselves surprisingly eliminated in the Asian Champions League qualifiers just 4 weeks later, losing 1-0 at home to Melbourne Victory. They followed this up with 2 more defeats, 1-0 away to Nagoya in the Levain Cup and 3-0 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in round 1 of J1. 3 games, 3 defeats, 0 goals scored, it was a nightmare start for Zago. Everyone at the Kashima Soccer Stadium will be hoping that the enforced shutdown has given him precious time to get his message across.

Squad Update:
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that 11 of their 31 squad members are new recruits for 2020, there have been no additional signings during the lockdown. The loss of Brazilian marksman Serginho to the Chinese second division (wonder if he’s having any regrets now) was a bitter blow for Kashima and how well his countrymen, Juan Alano (Internacional) and Everaldo (Queretaro, Mexico) settle in will be of utmost importance. Defender Bueno, who I suggested could be a weak link at the back in my February preview, has been loaned to Atletico Mineiro in his homeland.
With an eye on the future, Antlers announced in this month that Meiji University duo, Tomoki Hayakawa (GK) and Keigo Tsunemoto (DF) as well as Osaka Taiiku University defender Naoki Hayashi will join the club from next year.

Week 1:
vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima (a) 0-3
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Kawasaki Frontale

2019: 4th
Kantoku: Toru Oniki (4th year)
Quick Stat: Kawasaki had the best away record in J1 last year, taking 36 points from 17 games.

Recap:
Champions in 2017 and 2018, Kawasaki endured an indifferent 2019, missing out on Asian Champions League qualification, but managing to lift the Levain Cup following a penalty shoot-out win over Sapporo. This year promises to see a changing of the guard with a more youthful looking squad attempting to regain the Kanagawa bragging rights from neighbouring Yokohama F.Marinos. They kicked off 2020 with a bang, thumping S-Pulse 5-1 at Todoroki Stadium in the League Cup, but dropped the baton the following week in their League opener, drawing 0-0 at home to a Sagan Tosu side predicted by many to finish bottom of J1.

Squad Update:
Their only transfer of the lockdown was to sell backup ‘keeper Hiroki Mawatari to Fagiano Okayama, which brings them down to a more respectable 4 senior goalkeepers in their squad, while Kento Tachibanada a midfielder from Toin Yokohama University (my old workplace) was announced as a signing for next season. Elsewhere, the break will presumably have given new university recruits, Zain Issaka (another of the Toin OB network that also includes Miki Yamane), Kaoru Mitoma (Tsukuba), Kaito Kamiya (Tokai Gakuen) and Reo Hatate (Juntendo) time to adjust to life as a pro, Frontale supporters will be hoping these guys will form the backbone of the side for the coming years.

Week 1:
vs Sagan Tosu (h) 0-0
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Cerezo Osaka

2019: 5th
Kantoku: Miguel Angel Lotina (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Cerezo had the best defensive record in J1 in 2019, conceding a mere 25 in 34 games (0.7 per game), they were also tied with Kashima for most clean sheets kept (15).

Recap:
Under the tutelage of wily head-coach Miguel Angel Lotina, Cerezo played an often quite dull but extremely effective brand of football last time out. Built on a rock-solid defence which conceded just 25 goals, they were able to achieve the 6th top 5 finish in their history. All the main protagonists in last season’s defensive masterclass are still in place and they started 2020 in strong fashion, smashing J2 side Matsumoto 4-1 at Nagai Stadium in the League Cup and following that up with a 1-0 opening day League win over Oita Trinita at the same venue.

Squad Update:
Young forward Mizuki Ando’s loan move to Machida Zelvia was their only lockdown transfer activity, he followed another young striker, Hiroto Yamada (Sendai), on the loan trail, the latter leaving in early February. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Mineiro joined on loan from Chapecoense just before the season started to replace his compatriot Souza and made 2 substitute appearances before the COVID-19 enforced break. From the winter recruits, wide-man Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (Montedio Yamagata) and Japan Under-17 star, Jun Nishikawa (Toko Gakuen High School) will have a fair bit of expectation riding on their shoulders when the campaign resumes.

Week 1:
vs Oita Trinita (h) 1-0
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Sanfrecce Hiroshima

2019: 6th
Kantoku: Hiroshi Jofuku (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Sanfrecce scored over 20% of their goals last year in just 2 games vs Vissel Kobe (6-2 home and 4-2 away)

Recap:
After a roller-coaster 2018, Sanfrecce had a much more stable campaign in 2019, finishing a comfortable 6th in J1 as well as progressing from the Asian Champions League group stages before being bettered by Kashima. They had a pretty quiet off-season, but a number of younger talents are emerging, most notably assist-king, Tsukasa Morishima, an exciting attacking-midfielder. Buoyed by the news that plans to build a new stadium in downtown Hiroshima are afoot, Sanfrecce started 2020 in dominant fashion, seeing off J1 new boys Yokohama FC away in the League Cup before dismantling the newly assembled Kashima Antlers 3-0 at Edion Stadium in round 1 of J1. They currently top the standings, albeit after only one game week.

Squad Update:
There are no new transfers to report, although since my original preview was written, Ritsumeikan University midfielder Tomoya Fujii was signed on a pre-contract for 2021 and registered as a designated special player for 2020, he was on the bench for both games so far this year, playing once against Yokohama FC. Extending the loan deals of Brazilian duo Leandro Pereira and Rhayner was probably Hiroshima’s best work last winter, their compatriot, attacking midfielder Ezequiel, also joined on loan from Botafogo, while Yuya Asano (younger brother of Takuma) came in from Mito HollyHock, though the jury is very much still out on whether he’ll bring as much to the team as his elder sibling.

Week 1:
vs Kashima Antlers (h) 3-0
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Gamba Osaka

2019: 7th
Kantoku: Tsuneyasu Miyamoto (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Yasuhito Endo will become the most experienced player in J1 history the next time he takes to the field. He’s currently tied on 631 appearances with legendary Nagoya ‘keeper Seigo Narazaki.

Recap:
Gamba had a nightmare start to 2019 (as they did the year before), however, owing to a change in strategy – playing with 3 centre-backs, as well a change in philosophy – disbanding the ageing group of heroes from the treble winning 2014 squad and supplementing the new young guns with returning heroes like Ideguchi and Usami, Gamba were able to haul themselves up to an ultimately respectable 7th place. This year started with a 1-0 home reverse to Kashiwa Reysol in the League Cup which was eerily similar to some games from early on in the past 2 campaigns. They were able to make it count when it really mattered this time though, and produced the performance of round 1 of J1 2020, turning over defending champions Yokohama F.Marinos 2-1 at Nissan Stadium, Kurata and Yajima helping themselves to a goal and an assist each.

Squad Update:
Vegalta Sendai backup ‘keeper Lee Yunoh was brought in on loan at the beginning of March to take the place of another loanee, Haruki Saruta (Kashiwa), in the U-23 squad after Saruta suffered a knee injury in training. Meiji University centre-back Yota Sato signed a pre-contract for 2021 and has been registered as a designated special player this year. Additionally, Japanese international centre-back, Gen Shoji, joined on a bumper deal from French side Toulouse last winter, however, due to injury he was unable to play in the 2 games prior to the shutdown. Gamba fans will look forward to seeing him work in tandem with Genta Miura and Kim Young-gwon at the back.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama F.Marinos (a) 2-1
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Vissel Kobe

2019: 8th
Kantoku: Thorsten Fink (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kobe’s games last season produced a total of 120 goals (3.6 per game), a league high.

Recap:
The Rakuten money finally seemed to pay off for Kobe as they lifted their first ever piece of silverware, the Emperor’s Cup, after a 2-0 win over Kashima at the new National Stadium in Tokyo on New Year’s Day. Like buses, their second trophy came soon after as they saw off J1 Champions Yokohama F.Marinos in the Super Cup in February.
A team which scored plenty and conceded loads gradually became more disciplined under German coach Thorsten Fink in the second half of last year and a more slimline squad started 2020 well. Their first ever Asian Champions League campaign began with a 5-1 trouncing of Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim and continued with a hugely impressive 1-0 win away to Suwon in Korea. In J1 they had to accept a share of the spoils when they met Yokohama FC in round 1 in a game played under bizarre circumstances with supporters allowed into the stadium, but told not to cheer.

Squad Update:
No ins or outs have been recorded during the league’s enforced absence which gives us a chance to look at their business from last winter. Douglas (14 goals, 5 assists for Shimizu in 2019) may be the signing of the close season and his partnership with Furuhashi guarantees goals. At the back, only Shonan and Shimizu conceded more than Kobe’s 59 last time out and to that end centre-backs, Ryuho Kikuchi (Renofa Yamaguchi) and Tetsushi Yamakawa (Tsukuba University) were brought in, though these signings appear to be more for the long term rather than right now.

Week 1:
vs Yokohama FC (h) 1-1
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Oita Trinita

2019: 9th
Kantoku: Tomohiro Katanosaka (5th year)
Quick Stat: Now departed strikers, Noriaki Fujimoto (Kobe) and Ado Onaiwu (YFM) scored over 50% of Oita’s goals last year (18 out of 35)

Recap:
Head coach Katanosaka has masterminded a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Kyushu side which saw them move up from J3 to J1 in the space of 3 years. Last season they started like a house on fire before inevitably hitting a bit of a slump, but they were still able to finish an excellent 9th with a squad mainly consisting of players from their 2018 J2 promotion campaign as well as sprinkling of veterans from their J3 days.
Oita had a disappointing start to 2020, going down 1-0 away from home in both of their games, at Shonan in the League Cup and Cerezo a week later in the League.

Squad Update:
Their only transfers of note during the lockdown have been the registrations of Fukuoka University midfielder Kenta Inoue and Kanoya Sports College forward Kazuki Fujimoto as designated special players for 2020. Owing to their small budget, Oita have largely had to try and replace departed stars like Ado Onaiwu and Noriaki Fujimoto with players who’ve performed well at lower levels. Retaining attacking-midfielder Kazuki Kozuka and centre-back Tomoki Iwata was a big boost for the club, though how long they can keep hold of them remains to be seen.

Week 1:
vs Cerezo Osaka (a) 0-1
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Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo

2019: 10th
Kantoku: Mihailo Petrovic (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Last year was the first time since 2007 that Mihailo Petrovic has coached a team to a bottom half finish in J1.

Recap:
Improving on 2018’s incredible 4th place finish was always going to be a tall order for Sapporo, and so it proved last year, however, 10th was still a decent showing from Mihailo Petrovic’s men. Although at times a little suspect at the back, they did have strong performers throughout the side, Akito Fukumori’s deadly set-pieces earned him 8 assists, while Chanathip continued to lay on goals for his attacking partners, Jay, Musashi Suzuki and Anderson Lopes. They would have considered themselves unfortunate to lose out to Kawasaki in the lottery of a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup final last year, and this defeat preceded a rather poor end to 2019 which saw them lose 4 of their last 6 league games.
Consadole started 2020 by coasting past Sagan Tosu, 3-0 away in the League Cup, but then went down 4-2 to Kashiwa Reysol in Chiba on the opening day of J1, these results suggest there’ll be plenty of goalmouth action at both ends this campaign.

Squad Update:
The big transfer news story to emerge out of Sapporo during the league’s break was that international goalkeeper Gu Sung-yun would return to his homeland to play for Daegu FC ahead of a 2-year stint in the Korean military. Consadole have already secured the services of Hosei University’s 2M tall stopper Kojiro Nakano for 2021, and have him on a designated special player contract for this year, but whether it is he, Thai international Kawin Thamsatchanan (a recent loan arrival from Leuven in Belgium) or the experienced Takanori Sugeno that takes over the starting spot is up for debate.

Week 1:
vs Kashiwa Reysol (a) 2-4
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Vegalta Sendai

2019: 11th
Kantoku: Takashi Kiyama (new)
Quick Stat: New Kashima Antlers full-back Katsuya Nagato provided assists for 26% of Sendai’s goals in 2019.

Recap:
Sendai secured their second consecutive 11th place finish in J1 last year, perhaps even more impressive than the previous campaign due to the fact that it was achieved with what, on paper at least, looked like a weaker squad. Still, that didn’t stop head coach Susumu Watanabe from losing his job, with Yamagata manager Takashi Kiyama coming in for his first stab at J1 level. Despite J1’s leading assist maker Katsuya Nagato departing for Kashima, off season recruitment had inspired confidence. However, that feel-good factor was only short-lived when it was announced that both Isaac Cuenca and Alexandre Guedes had gone down with injuries before the campaign had even begun. Sendai were thrashed 5-2 at Urawa in the League Cup before holding Nagoya to a 1-1 draw in the League. The break in fixtures has allowed their attacking talent to return, though the loss for the next 2 months of captain Simao Mate is a huge blow, and an extended period of playing in front of no spectators may undermine their impressive home record.

Squad Update:
Exciting news for Sendai is the return of former attacker Takuma Nishimura on loan from CSKA Moscow. He hit 11 goals in 24 games before his big money move to Russia in the summer of 2018 and Vegalta fans will be looking forward with relish to the partnership he can form with Cuenca, Guedes and Shuhei Akasaki. Elsewhere defenders, Hisashi Appiah Tawiah (Ryutsu Keizai University) and Takumi Mase (Hannan University) have both been brought in on designated special player contracts ahead of turning pro next year.
In terms of departures, defender Masato Tokida who played against Urawa in the League Cup has left for Matsumoto in a loan deal and as previously mentioned, backup goalie Lee Yunoh has joined Gamba U-23 on loan, he spent 2019 farmed out to Fukushima United.

Week 1:
vs Nagoya Grampus (h) 1-1
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Shimizu S-Pulse

2019: 12th
Kantoku: Peter Cklamovski (new)
Quick Stat: Shimizu had the worst defensive record in J1 last season with 69 goals conceded in total (2.03 per game). They were also one of only two teams to do the double over champions Yokohama F.Marinos (the other was Cerezo Osaka).

Recap:
One of the biggest stories of last winter was Shimizu’s appointment of Ange Postecoglou’s assistant at Yokohama F.Marinos, Peter Cklamovski. An avid disciple of Ange’s, it’ll be interesting to see how he shapes this S-Pulse side in his image. The JLeague’s no-relegation rule will definitely help with his experimentation which is bound to encounter teething problems. Shimizu had the leakiest back line in J1 last season conceding 69 times, including an 8-0 home reverse against Sapporo. This year it took them 2 games to concede 8 goals, being hammered 5-1 at Kawasaki in the League Cup then putting up a better showing at home to FC Tokyo in the League before ultimately going down 3-1.

Squad Update:
Nothing to report on the transfer front during the lockdown, although S-Pulse did hire a new coach and recruit a number of new players in the off-season. Additionally, midfielders, Yasufumi Nishimura (Okayama) and Kota Miyamoto (FC Gifu) have returned from loan spells, while wide-man Hideki Ishige made a welcome comeback from serious injury and now appears to be seen as an option at full-back. Despite the additions of Yusuke Goto (Oita), Teerasil (Muangthong United) and Carlinhos (Sion) it’s still hard to see anyone getting close to matching Douglas’ 14 league goals scored last year.

Week 1:
vs FC Tokyo (h) 1-3
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Nagoya Grampus

2019: 13th
Kantoku: Massimo Ficcadenti (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Nagoya were second only to Sendai in terms of % of total points picked up at home (65% compared with Sendai’s nearly 76%) in 2019.

Recap:
One of the biggest spenders in the league, Nagoya have flattered to deceive since returning to J1 in 2018. They have a team full of highly talented individuals who rarely add up to the sum of their parts. Italian Massimo Ficcadenti was a surprise choice to replace the much more attack minded Yahiro Kazama midway through last year, however, he was able to steer a side which had been in freefall into a relatively safe 13th spot in the standings. Grampus started 2020 unbeaten, seeing off Kashima Antlers 1-0 at home in the League Cup before having the better of a 1-1 draw away at Sendai in round 1 of J1.

Squad Update:
Former Japan international front-man Mu Kanazaki joined on loan from cash-strapped Tosu at the end of March and he will take the place of Jo, who returned to Corinthians in Brazil (in a deal that seems to have more to it than meets the eye) having only found the net 6 times last season, compared to 24 in the previous campaign. Kanazaki, however, was recently struck down with Covid-19 and passed the virus on to Australian goalkeeper Mitch Langerak. Both players have since recovered, however, the fallout was that the rest of the squad had to endure a period of training together using Zoom while their J1 rivals were all working on the training ground.
During the break, young full-back Yukinari Sugawara turned his loan move to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar into a permanent one after impressing in his first year in the Netherlands.

Week 1:
vs Vegalta Sendai (a) 1-1
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Urawa Reds

2019: 14th
Kantoku: Tsuyoshi Otsuki (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Legendary striker Shinzo Koroki has hit double figures in his last 8 league campaigns.

Recap:
Despite reaching the final of the Asian Champions League last season, finishing 14th in J1, their worst performance since 2011 was simply unacceptable for a club of this size. Thing surely must get better, a lot better, this year if head-coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki wants to remain in his current role. Their was a surprising lack of transfer activity last winter considering the average age and performance of the squad over the previous 12 months, however, Brazilian attacker, Leonardo who joined from Albirex Niigata could well challenge Kobe’s signing of Douglas as the best coup of the transfer window. The former J3 and J2 top scorer introduced himself to the Saitama Stadium supporters with a double on his debut, a 5-2 win at home to Sendai in the League Cup. The defensive frailties that were briefly on show in that game resurfaced a week later in their League opener, a 3-2 victory over a Shonan Bellmare side who are expected to find things tough this year. It looks like Urawa games will be a pretty exciting watch over the coming months.

Squad Update:
The lack of transfer activity from Reds does seem a little surprising viewed from afar, only Ryutsu Keizai midfielder Atsuki Ito has come in on a designated special player contract. However, they may be banking on some of their younger crop of players to develop more over the coming years. Right-sided defender Daiki Hashioka appears to be the pick of the bunch, though left winger Koya Yuroki could also become a key asset if he’s given more game time. Central-midfielder Hidetoshi Takeda joined the club from the cradle of footballing talent that is Aomori Yamada High School last winter, so we can expect good things from him, while Chuo University winger Tomoaki Okubo has again been registered as a designated special player ahead of turning pro with Reds next year. Youth team ‘keeper Zion Suzuki is on a Type-2 amateur contract which allowed him to appear on the bench against both Sendai and Shonan despite still being in high school (he’s already 189cm tall!)

Week 1:
vs Shonan Bellmare (a) 3-2
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Sagan Tosu

2019: 15th
Kantoku: Kim Myung-hwi (3rd year)
Quick Stat: Tosu failed to score in 9 out of their first 10 league games in 2019.

Recap:
If you’re interested enough in Japanese football to read my blog, I’m going to assume you know something about Tosu’s appalling financial situation, so I don’t want to dwell on it too much. The lack of relegation this year would appear to help them more than any other side given that most #jpred2020 entrants had them going down. A very weak squad on paper were humbled 3-0 at home by Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in the League Cup’s first group-stage match this February before gaining a creditable 0-0 draw away to Kawasaki Frontale on the League’s opening day. Much more of that battling spirit will be required in the coming months and years, I feel.

Squad Update:
Mu Kanazaki’s departure on loan to Nagoya may be the first of quite a few in the near future as the club looks to balance it’s books. In terms of arrivals, Chuo University defender Daisuke Matsumoto is in as a designated special player while Tosu U-18 forwards Reoto Kodama and Ryunosuke Sagara as well as defender Shinya Nakano have come in on Type-2 contracts. One intriguing move just before the league started back in February was the acquisition of right-sided Chinese player Wang Jianan from Guangzhou R&F. The current squad has a very youthful feel to it, with midfielders, Fuchi Honda and Daiki Matsuoka (both 19) as well as former Meiji University full-back Ryoya Morishita (23) expected to be key players.

Week 1:
vs Kawasaki Frontale (a) 0-0
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Shonan Bellmare

2019: 16th
Kantoku: Bin Ukishima (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Shonan kept the fewest clean sheets in J1 last year (4).

Recap:
The Cho Kwi-jae power harassment scandal rocked Shonan to the core last summer, sending them into a tail-spin that they were only able to pull out of thanks to a 1-1 draw at home to Tokushima in the play-offs (again the rights and wrongs of that system have been discussed in depth elsewhere so I’ll not go any further into it.) Bin Ukishima, the man who replaced the long serving Cho has been tasked with rebuilding the side and he’s brought in 12 new faces along with 2 players who’ve returned to Bellmare from loan spells. This sort of annual upheaval is not uncommon in these parts and Shonan are likely to be another side who are assisted by the league’s no-relegation rule. Bellmare started 2020 by edging out Oita 1-0 at home in the League Cup, before losing their J1 opener 3-2 to Urawa at the same venue with new Norwegian signing Tarik missing a penalty.

Squad Update:
After a busy winter, Shonan’s lockdown work has been largely focused on the future, 5 youth team players have been registered on Type-2 Contracts, including midfielder Satoshi Tanaka who’ll turn pro next year. Additionally, 20 year-old forward Ryo Nemoto of Kanoya Sports College in Kagoshima and Sho Hiramatsu from Rissho University have joined as a designated special players. The club also announced the capture of midfielder Taiyo Hiraoka from Riseisha High School for 2021, though he hasn’t yet been registered for this campaign. Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, there has still been no announcement from the club regarding the futures of 2 Brazilians, Crislan and Leleu, who were on the books last year, I assume neither will be back, but usually JLeague teams are good at keeping the fans informed about this sort of thing.

Week 1:
vs Urawa Reds (h) 2-3
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Kashiwa Reysol

2019: 1st (J2)
Kantoku: Nelsinho (2nd year – current spell)
Quick Stat: The last time Kashiwa won J2, they went on to lift the J1 title the following year (2011). Current head coch Nelsinho was also in charge back then.

Recap:
Under legendary manager Nelsinho, Kashiwa are back in the top flight following a one-year sojourn in J2. After a few bumps and bruises in the early rounds, Reysol’s class eventually told and they were worthy champions, their season of course ending with that memorable 13-1 rout of Kyoto Sanga. They’ve kept most of last year’s championship winning side intact and added a cast of 2019 J2 all stars, how will they do in J1 this year?
They got 2020 off to the best possible start with a 1-0 win away to Gamba in the rain in February’s League Cup clash, goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, left-back Taiyo Koga and inevitably the well-known attacking duo of Cristiano and Olunga were all in fine form. That victory was then backed up by a 4-2 triumph in a thrilling match at home to Sapporo in round 1 of J1 with both Esaka and Olunga notching doubles. They have more than enough attacking talent, but for me centre-back and centre-midfield are areas for concern. They’ll certainly be interesting to watch this year.

Squad Update:
Kashiwa’s only lockdown work has been to move youth product Keita Ide to Tochigi SC in what appears to be a full transfer, I say appears as he was only promoted to the top team last winter. There have been no ins during the break, though Reysol did recruit quite heavily in the off-season and have no doubt taken this opportunity to try and bring their ex-J2 players up to speed. I’m particularly excited by versatile 23 year-old midfielder Yuta Kamiya who spent 2019 with Ehime, on-loan from Shonan. Right-back Kengo Kitazume who joined from Yokohama FC looks a solid addition too, and I can see him taking over from Shunki Takahashi before much longer. Two other interesting coups were Hiroto Goya (Nagasaki – on loan from Gamba), who netted 22 goals in 36 J2 games last year and former youth team product Hayato Nakama (Okayama) who struck an impressive 15 times in 40 J2 matches from left midfield in 2019. These 2 undoubtedly possess the ability, but can they unseat one of the top dogs such as, Olunga, Cristiano, Esaka or Segawa, to nail down a starting berth?

Week 1:
vs Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo (h) 4-2
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Yokohama FC

2019: 2nd (J2)
Kantoku: Takahiro Shimotaira (2nd year)
Quick Stat: Kazuyoshi Miura made his JLeague debut on 15 May 1993, over 8 years before team-mate Koki Saito was born.

Recap:
Hear the name Yokohama FC and you probably instantly think of their famous veterans, Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura and Shunsuke Nakamura, then probably to a lesser extent, guys like Leandro Domingues, Ibba Laajab, Daisuke Matsui and Masahiko Inoha. However, bubbling under the surface are some of the hottest young talents in Japanese football, attacking trio, Koki Saito (18), Katsuhiro Nakayama (23) and Yusuke Matsuo (22) combined for 18 goals and 11 assists last season to help Yokohama FC achieve only the second season of top flight football in their history. Things will be tough for sure for this squad of ageing stars and up-and-comers, they started things off with a tame 2-0 loss at home to a wily Sanfrecce side in the League Cup, before holding Kobe to a respectable 1-1 draw in the League opener in Hyogo. Tatsuki Seko, another young gun who was recruited in the off-season from Meiji University netted Yokohama’s goal on his senior debut, he’s also one to look out for this year.

Squad Update:
A couple of pieces of transfer news to report from Yokohama during the lockdown, Hosei University defender Yuya Takagi was registered as a designated special player, he’ll turn pro when he’s finished with his studies next year. Full-back Yuta Fujii also made a permanent move to J2 outfit Avispa Fukuoka, he made a mere 5 appearances for Yokohama FC in 2019. Finally, a quick shout out to a name I didn’t mention above, left-back Takaaki Shichi (5 goals and 4 assists in 39 games for Mito HollyHock last year), his signing may have largely flown under the radar, but in my books it looks like a very shrewd move.

Week 1:
vs Vissel Kobe (a) 1-1
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Gamba Osaka vs Urawa Red Diamonds Match Preview

Urawa Red Diamonds (13th) vs Gamba Osaka (9th)
2019 Meiji Yasuda J1 League Round 34
7 December 2019 at 14:00 JST
Saitama Stadium 2002


J1 draws to a close for 2019 this Saturday as fierce rivals Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds go head to head in an attempt by both clubs to finish off extremely disappointing league campaigns with a win. Gamba could end up anywhere from 7th to 10th in the final standings depending on the result of this and other matches while 2019 Asian Champions League runners-up Urawa are only safe from the promotion/relegation place by virtue of the fact that 2 teams lower than them, Shimizu and Tosu, play each other in the final round of fixtures so cannot both overhaul their total of 37 points.

Gamba come into this encounter in much better domestic form than their opponents with last Saturday’s rout of now relegated Matsumoto Yamaga their 5th win in the last 8 league games. However, their away form has been more patchy with only 4 wins and 17 points coming from 16 matches to date, the 6th worst record in J1. Urawa held title-chasing FC Tokyo to a 1-1 draw at Ajinomoto Stadium in their previous game, but that was their 5th league match in a row without a win, their last 3 points coming on October 10th with a 2-1 victory over Shimizu S-Pulse in Saitama. Since then they’ve been defeated at home 1-0 by Oita and 2-0 by Kawasaki and in total they’ve only managed to take the 3 points on 4 occasions at Saitama Stadium 2002 this season, the 3rd worst record in the league, ahead of only already relegated Iwata and Matsumoto. Goalscoring has also been an issue all season, they’ve found the back of the net on just 32 occasions in 33 games so far, again this tally is only worsened by Iwata (28 goals) and Matsumoto (20). Top scorer Shinzo Koroki has struck 12 times in 31 J1 appearances this year (37.5% of their goals).

Urawa won the reverse fixture between the two back in April with Ewerton’s late drive enough to separate the sides in a rather dull clash which saw Hiroki Fujiharu go off injured following an accidental collision with Reds defender Ryota Moriwaki. It was also Gamba’s 5th defeat in their opening 7 games of 2019 and one of the last occasions on which they used the 4-4-2 formation. Last year, a rampant Gamba saw off Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002 though wonder-strikes from Kosukue Onose and Hwang Ui-jo either side of a Shinzo Koroki equaliser before Ademilson sealed the 3-1 win in the 69th minute, the 7th of Gamba’s epic 9 game winning streak. Last season’s encounter at Panasonic Stadium Suita was again a tepid affair, ending up 0-0. The previous 5 Urawa vs Gamba clashes in Saitama are even with 2 wins apiece (Urawa 2015, 2016), Gamba (2014, 2018) and 1 draw (2017). The most memorable of those from a Gamba perspective would definitely be the 2-0 victory in round 32 of the 2014 season as late strikes from Akihiro Sato and Patric saw the men in blue and black overtake their title rivals in the race for the J1 crown which of course they went onto lift following a 3-1 home victory over Kobe and a nervy 0-0 draw away to Tokushima. Victory for Urawa in this year’s match would see them become only the second team, after Yokohama F.Marinos, to defeat Gamba both home and away. Gamba in turn have taken 6 points from each of Matsumoto, Shonan and Shimizu.

Being the final fixture of a long and arduous season could be a factor in this game, especially for Urawa who, in goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, have the J1 player with the most club appearances in total in 2019 (50 – 32 J1, 13 ACL, 2 Emperor’s Cup, 2 Jleague Cup and 1 Japanese Super Cup), his team-mates Tomoaki Makino and Shinzo Koroki (both 48 games) as well as attacking-midfielder Kazuki Nagasawa (43) and centre-back, Takuya Iwanami (40) are all in desperate need of a well-earned rest this winter. By contrast, Gamba top-scorer and assist provider Ademilson has played the most games for the club in 2019 (42 in all competitions – though only 32 have been starts), Masaaki Higashiguchi (41) and Genta Miura (40) are just behind. Interestingly, assuming midfield maestro Yasuhito takes the field just one month shy of his 40th birthday, it will be his 28th J1 game of the season (34th in all competitions), but will mark the first time since 2008 that he’s played less than 30 league games in one calendar year, an incredible feat of staying power.

Team News:
Gamba only have Takashi Usami as a doubt with a head knock but his prognosis is good so they are likely to see out the season with the same starting members as in the victories at home to Sendai and Matsumoto. My prediction of Shu Kurata coming into the line-up at the expense of either Endo or Yajima last week didn’t come to fruition but it remains an option for Director Tsuneyasu Miyamoto. This type of derby match doesn’t really lend itself to sentiment, but I guess depending on the match situation, it’s possible we may be able to get an insight into the future of certain players such as Patric (rumoured to be staying permanently) or Kazuma Watanabe who may be playing their last game for the club this weekend. Ademilson (rumoured to be signing a new contract despite interest from Urawa) scored his 9th goal and got his 7th assist of 2019 against Matsumoto and should he find the back of the net in this game, it’d be the first time he has reached double figures in J1 with this being his 5th season playing in Japanese football.

Urawa play in a 3-4-2-1 formation, although they have rotated their personnel quite heavily this year as a result of their extended Champions League participation and more recently due to poor league performances, this makes predicting their starting line-up a thankless task, but I’ll do my best. Former Japanese international Shusaku Nishikawa will be between the sticks for his 51st club appearance of the season. The back three will almost definitely have Nishikawa’s former Hiroshima team-mate, Tomoaki Makino in there and he’ll likely be flanked by last winter’s recruit from Kashiwa Reysol, Daisuke Suzuki and 25 year-old former Kobe centre-back, Takuya Iwanami. Other options include, the Brazilian Mauricio, who was imperious in the 1-0 win in Suita in April or Ryota Moriwaki, another member of the Sanfrecce old-boys network, who actually played at right wing-back against FC Tokyo and will leave Reds after 7 years with the club this off-season. 182 cm tall Daiki Hashioka plays right wing-back more regularly and may come in again for this clash, he was the focal point for Urawa’s tactic of playing long, high balls out to the wing with the aim of getting flick ons to the attackers in Osaka earlier this year, a strategy that brought no success at all, I wonder if it’ll be used this time round. The left wing-back slot is one of the most hotly contested in the Reds squad, last week it was filled by Ryohei Yamanaka, another Japanese international, who joined from Yokohama F.Marinos last winter, he is also the team’s top assist provider in J1 this year (with 4, it was also his long range drive which was only parried by FC Tokyo ‘keeper Akihiro Hayashi into the path of Martinus for the opening goal last week), Takahiro Sekine, who returned to Saitama from an unsuccessful spell in Germany this summer, has played there more frequently in recent games and veteran Tomoya Ugajin, a one-club man who’s been with Reds since 2009 is another option. Both Sekine and Ugajin are capable of playing down the right if required.

Going forward, the central midfield berths are likely to be occupied by on-loan Brazilian, Ewerton, scorer of the winner in Suita and former Omiya holding midfielder, Takuya Aoki with vastly experienced ex-Leicester City star, Yuki Abe likely to provide back up from the bench. Club legend and scorer of at least 10 goals in the previous 7 J1 campaigns, Shinzo Koroki will lead the attack and against FC Tokyo he was supported by club captain and another of the ex-Sanfrecce brigade, Yosuke Kashiwagi, who has missed large chunks of this year through injury and former Marinos man Martinus, the man who put Reds ahead last week but who has largely failed to reproduce the form of his Yokohama days where he gave Gamba several torrid afternoons. Again there are many options in these areas; Kazuki Nagasawa has played 29 J1 games this year (3 goals, 2 assists), there is also Yuki Muto, whose partnership with Koroki has proven so fruitful over the years, but, his return of 1 goal and 3 assists in 23 J1 games this campaign is basically a metaphor for Urawa’s entire season. Another Brazilian, Fabricio missed the first half of the year through injury and has never really regained his 2018 form since returning, while things just haven’t happened all season for 187cm target man and former Cerezo player Kenyu Sugimoto.

Prediction:
A really tough one to predict as neither side has much other than pride to play for in this one. Urawa’s poor home form and inability to score versus Gamba’s wastefulness in front of goal and aversion to winning on the road, which side will prevail? I had this game nailed down from a few weeks back as one in which only one side would have anything riding on it and naturally we could expect that side to pick up the points, but results have conspired to leave this essentially as meaningless a match as any between these two great rivals could be. I was leaning towards a 1-0 Reds win until I did the maths and worked out that there was no chance of them going down, so now I’m going to say it’ll be a rather tame 0-0 draw, similar in fashion to the final match of Kenta Hasegawa’s reign in 2017 when FC Tokyo vs Gamba finished scoreless.

Predicted Gamba Line-up:
GK 1 Masaaki Higashiguchi (33 years old/33 J1 apps / 0 goals / 1 assist)
CB 13 Shunya Suganuma (29/14/0/1)
CB 5 Genta Miura (C) (24/30/1/0)
CB 19 Kim Young-gwon (29/31/1/1)
RWB 8 Kosuke Onose (26/29/7/4)
LWB 4 Hiroki Fujiharu (31/16/2/3)
DM 21 Shinya Yajima (25/26/1/4)
CM 15 Yosuke Ideguchi (23/12/2/0)
CM 8 Shu Kurata (31/30/7/1)
CF 33 Ademilson (25/31/9/7)
CF 33 Takashi Usami (27/13/6/1)

Subs: 23 Mizuki Hayashi (GK/23/0/0/0), 27 Ryu Takao (CB/RWB/23/18/0/0), 34 Yuya Fukuda (RWB/LWB/20/16/0/0) 7 Yasuhito Endo (CM/39/27/1/5), 14 Markel Susaeta (RW/LW/AM/31/5/0/0), 18 Patric (CF/31/11/2/1), 39 Kazuma Watanabe (CF/33/18/3/0)