The top two in J1 came head-to-head today and I was at Saitama Stadium to see Gamba Osaka close the gap on league leaders Urawa Reds to two points with a 2-0 win. Here’s my report on the game for The Japan News…
SAITAMA — Gamba Osaka blew the J1 title race wide open on Saturday, performing a 2-0 smash-and-grab on Urawa Reds, who now top the table by just two points with two games to play.
Some inspired late changes by Gamba coach Kenta Hasegawa proved decisive in the clash of the top two, with both Akihiro Sato and Shu Kurata coming off the bench in the closing stages of the game and finding the net.
“You will have a chance, so make sure you score,” Sato told reporters his coach had said to him before he entered the fray. “I’d noticed the gaps in between the Urawa defenders and thought I’d be able to find space if a pass came my way. As soon as I shot, I knew it had gone in. I didn’t even look at the goal to check.”
That finish, laid on a plate for Sato by another substitute, Lins, in the 88th minute, was followed five minutes later by a similarly clinical effort from Kurata. He squirmed into space in the box after good work by Yasuyuki Konno and fired past Reds keeper Shusaku Nishikawa from a tight angle.
“We had to win or the title was Reds’,” Hasegawa said. “From the 60-minute mark, I thought the tempo would increase and told the players at halftime to be prepared for that. Reds created some chances, but the substitutes were able to produce the result, and for me that is the real strength of this Gamba team.”
Indeed, the Osakans are enjoying a fantastic season, and as well as going strong in the title race, they picked up the Nabisco Cup a fortnight ago and have an Emperor’s Cup semifinal against Shimizu S-Pulse to come on Wednesday.
“I trust all of my players — starters and substitutes — and our confidence is really growing toward the triple crown,” Hasegawa said.
Their push for a first J1 crown since 2005 looked to be fizzling out as Urawa dominated for large periods on Saturday, and Gamba could have gone in a goal down at halftime. Defender Daiki Niwa, trying to clear a 43rd minute cross, headed it toward his own net, but keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi acrobatically tipped it over the bar.
The second half continued as a cagey affair, and Reds’ best chance fell to winger Tomoya Ugajin in the 82nd minute. His shot across the goal from the left side of the box was struck crisply, but Higashiguchi was again a match for it and sent it round the post.
Sato had come on for Patric just before that chance, and six minutes later fulfilled his coach’s wishes to the joy of the over 2,000 Gamba fans in among the 56,758 in attendance at Saitama Stadium, coolly passing into the net from inside the box.
It was Reds’ first home loss in J1 since falling 1-0 to Sagan Tosu back on March 8, but the league leaders have now won just one of their last five games.
They next travel for the return against Tosu — a fixture they have yet to win since Sagan were promoted to J1 in 2012, losing 3-1 and 4-1 on their previous visits to Kyushu — and coach Mihailo Petrovic was bullish in defeat.
“Today we lost, but we still lead Gamba by two points and have two games to play. From tomorrow we will start to plan for Tosu,” he said.
Sagan still have a mathematical shot at the title themselves after they beat Tokushima Vortis 1-0, leaving them five points behind Reds, while Kashima Antlers, a point ahead of Tosu, also remain in the hunt after they defeated Kawasaki Frontale 2-1.