The J.League’s decision to revert to a two-stage format hasn’t been particularly well-received, but its ‘Championship’ play-off got off to a flying start this weekend as Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka contested a frenetic semi-final in front of 40,696 fans at Saitama Stadium…
SAITAMA — Birthday boy Hiroki Fujiharu struck one of two extra-time goals for Gamba Osaka in the J.League playoff semifinal on Saturday, as the reigning J1 champion beat Urawa Reds 3-1 at Saitama Stadium.
Yasuyuki Konno opened the scoring for Gamba in the 47th minute, before substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic pulled Reds level in the 72nd.
The game consequently went into extra-time and looked to be headed for a penalty shoot-out before Fujiharu reestablished the visitor’s lead with a stunning volley in the 118th minute. Brazilian Patric added the gloss in injury time to secure Gamba’s passage to the two-leg final with Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Dec. 2 and 5.
“It was a great ball from Yone [Koki Yonekura] and I just focused on hitting it cleanly with no doubts,” said Fujiharu, who turned 27.
“Reds had more points than us over the course of the season but we knew we just had to give our all to beat them in a one-off game here.”
Captain Yasuhito Endo echoed those sentiments.
“We’re the challengers having finished in third place so have nothing to lose,” Japan’s most-capped player said of his team’s playoff hopes.
The first half was a tense affair of few clear-cut chances. Yuki Abe almost opened the scoring for Urawa in the 14th minute but sent a header just wide, then Hiroyuki Abe fired a warning shot for Gamba in the 18th as he clipped an effort across goal and off the post.
The second half started with a bang, though, as Gamba opened the scoring two minutes after the restart.
Kotaro Omori gained possession on the left wing and fed Konno inside the penalty area, where he kept his composure under pressure from Tomoaki Makino before dispatching beyond Shusaku Nishikawa.
Reds then had to press for the equalizer, but Gamba continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack and Patric whistled an effort just past the post in the 64th.
Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic was left apoplectic seven minutes later as referee Hajime Matsuo waved away appeals for a penalty when Takahiro Sekine appeared to have been brought down by Omori inside the area.
Reds pulled level from the resultant corner anyway, Ryota Moriwaki heading against the bar and Ljubijankic rising highest to nod home the rebound.
Yuki Muto had a huge opportunity to seal Reds’ passage to the final with the last touch of regular play, but his free header from a Moriwaki cross was saved spectacularly by Higashiguchi.
“We had nothing to lose coming into this match, so just resolved to give it our all and see what happened,” Gamba’s keeper said.
“Those are the kind of scenes where winning and losing is decided in soccer, so I’m pleased I was able to do my job as a goalkeeper and make the save.”
Penalties were looming but Gamba reestablished its lead in extraordinary circumstances with just two minutes to play.
Daiki Niwa almost scored a freak own goal — inadvertently scooping a backpass over Higashiguchi and against his own post — but after the ball rebounded back into play Gamba launched yet another — this time clinical — counterattack, which was finished off in style by Fujiharu.
“It looked like we’d lost it in that instant,” Hasegawa said of Niwa’s near-miss. “On the other hand, perhaps Reds lost concentration a little at that point and the birthday boy Fujiharu was able to score in such dramatic fashion to win us the game.”
Patric then nudged home an Endo free-kick in the 121st to make absolutely sure of the result.
Gamba narrowly slipped into the playoff having been fourth in the overall standings entering the last league match. However, the team erased a two-point deficit and finished ahead of FC Tokyo on goal difference