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December 2008

Gamba Osaka 3, Manchester United 5

19 Dec 2008(Fri)



It was certainly very much a case of mixed emotions, but ultimately the only part of last night’s game from which I did not draw complete joy was the minute in which Manchester United scored their fourth and fifth goals. It would, after all, have been a sorry ending for Gamba Osaka to have been beaten by so many. However, Akira Nishino had demonstrated his attacking intentions from the very beginning with a 4-3-3 formation, and his side repaid him by keeping their heads high, and going on to score a wonderful third goal themselves even after they had pulled one back from the penalty spot. United may well have switched off by this point, with the result already certain, but Hideo Hashimoto’s injury-time strike will be a source of great inspiration for the players, staff, and fans of Gamba, and perhaps indeed for Japanese football as a whole.


Last year, Urawa Reds defended strongly against AC Milan, and their 1-0 defeat certainly appears to be a narrower defeat on paper than yesterday’s 5-3. It will, however, have surely left a much greater impression around the world to see two attacking teams from Europe and Asia come together in a contest that produced eight goals, and in which Gamba were able to shine on a number of occasions. The importance of the Club World Cup may be questioned within Europe, but the experience in Yokohama for Gamba was absolutely priceless.


The Gamba supporters made their mark as well, even earning a mention on the BBC website, and while I was sitting in a neutral section on this occasion, this was something to feel proud of too. It was, for me, simply the perfect match.


Incidentally, on the Shinkansen on the way back to Osaka this morning, I was working out that if we assume the following –


Manchester United will win the UEFA Champions League once every ten years

Gamba Osaka will qualify for the ACL once every two years, and win it once every five attempts

If both clubs qualify for the Club World Cup in the same year, the chances of their meeting are 50%


– then official matches like yesterday’s between United and Gamba will only happen once every 200 years. Of course, these intervals become longer still if we stipulate that we want the game to be played in Japan, or to produce eight goals…


In any case, I will already be back home for the holiday season before Sunday’s final, as this year’s Club World Cup is being played a week later than normal, but having witnessed my own personal game of the century (millennium?), I couldn’t care less.

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Pinch me

16 Dec 2008(Tue)

Christmas is coming a week early this year. It may not have been as comprehensive as the ACL final, but Gamba Osaka secured a narrow 1-0 win on Sunday in their rematch with Adelaide United – who had beaten Waitakere United in their playoff – to clinch a place in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup. Perhaps there were nerves at the occasion, or despite coach Akira Nishino’s constant insistence on focusing solely on the matters at hand, perhaps the players and supporters had underestimated the opponents, but ultimately, the result is of far greater significance than the performance. Next up, on Thursday at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Gamba will come face to face with a true superpower in the form of Manchester United.


As Jeremy Walker writes in his column this week, it is meetings like these that represent the true meaning of the Club World Cup. The UEFA Champions League may justifiably be considered the ultimate challenge in Europe, in terms of its level both economically and on the pitch, but even in its first four years, the very existence of the Club World Cup is already contributing to much development in other regions. The ACL has been given new energy thanks to vastly heightened interest in countries like Japan, where clubs are bettering themselves in order to win the chance of (and, indeed, through their experience of) challenging for the continental and global crowns. As the first Japanese winners of the ACL last year, Urawa Reds earned the right to face AC Milan in the first ever competitive meeting between European and Asian clubs, and this game inspired the dreams of football fans not only in Saitama but across Japan and the rest of the region. This year, regardless of the result, the same dream has come true for Gamba.


It is an extra bonus that, like Milan, Manchester United are another club steeped in tradition, and indeed have a proud reputation as pioneers within the English game. Despite the objections of the FA, it was the determination of Sir Matt Busby that paved the way for English clubs to enter the European Champions’ Cup from 1956, and despite tragically losing so many of his young players in Munich two years later, Busby rebuilt the side in just ten years to become the first English champions of Europe in 1968. United also contested the Intercontinental Cup that year, losing out to Estudiantes of Argentina, but it was a source of personal pride to current manager Sir Alex Ferguson when his team beat Palmeiras of Brazil in 1999 to claim the Toyota Cup that had eluded Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Just weeks after this triumph, United also played in the first FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil, and despite the toils of coming all the way to Japan, will be looking to write a new page in their history under the tournament’s latest guise this year.


United have not quite managed to fit Dimitar Berbatov into their system since his summer arrival and their goals tally has suffered as a result, but their defence has remained superbly and steadfastly marshalled by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, with five clean sheets in their last five league games. Such statistics suggest that the meeting between two typically attacking sides in United and Gamba may not be quite as high scoring as one would perhaps have predicted. Nonetheless, the match is still likely to be played at a fast, exciting pace, and with the two other semi-finalists, LDU Quito and Pachuca, also favouring an attacking game, supporters can hope for much entertainment from the tournament’s remaining games.


On a personal level, the prospect of a meeting between the team I have supported since before I started school, and my local team in my adopted country whose hardcore fans have taken me in as one of their own, is simply too unfathomably terrific for my writing skills to do justice. Even a club as big as United have only won the European crown on three occasions, while my first visit to Banpaku five years ago – standing on the grass banks that were there then – was to see a Gamba side with no realistic hopes of challenging in the J League, let alone the ACL. For my two teams to be facing each other now, in Japan, because of continental successes in the same year, is the most wonderful of coincidences.


As far back as the spring I was grappling with the dilemma of which to support in such a scenario, and even now, I am yet to reach a conclusion. Having bought my ticket not through either club but directly from FIFA, I do not even know in which end I will be sitting. I will just have to wear both teams’ shirts as a symbol of my confusion, but I suppose that on balance, assuming that a never-ending penalty shootout is out of the question, a close win for United would be the best result to bring satisfaction to both sides. My own position, I have decided, is purely win-win, and I cannot wait for Gamba’s chance to make a real impression on football fans back home.

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Counting down to the Club World Cup

10 Dec 2008(Wed)

The joy felt by coach Oswaldo de Oliveira and his Kashima Antlers players on Saturday night, having seen off Consadole Sapporo in their final league game to secure a well-deserved second straight J League title, will not have come without an element of regret. The FIFA Club World Cup has offered a place to the champions of its host nation since 2007, but despite a Japanese club never having won the AFC Champions League before then, the triumphs of first Urawa Reds and now Gamba Osaka have meant that this right to compete on the world stage has had to be given to the ACL runners-up – this year, Adelaide United – instead. On both occasions, Kashima have been the unlucky ones to be denied.


The rule that states that only one club from any given country may take part makes sense in principle, but its fallacies are exposed when juxtaposed with another condition that ensures that no two teams from the same continent can qualify for the semi-finals. Assuming they win their play-off with the Oceania representatives, the ACL runners-up must always then play the Asian champions in the last 8. Adelaide will have to overcome Waitakere United – an amateur side from New Zealand who admit they cannot hope to compete on the same level – in the opening game on Thursday, but just like Urawa versus Sepahan Part III last year, the quarter-final is likely to be a rematch of Adelaide’s ACL final with Gamba. Surely even an all-Japanese tie between Gamba and Kashima in the FIFA event would be of greater interest to the fans.


FIFA president Sepp Blatter was once famously dismissed by a German journalist as ‘having 50 ideas a day, and 51 of them are bad’, but even so, Gamba will not be complaining too loudly. Despite the slight unfairness of giving Adelaide a third opportunity to derail their international dreams, they will feel far more confident of beating an opponent they have already put to the sword twice as recently as last month than they would have done of beating the champions of their own domestic league. The strange choice of an evening kick-off for the game this Sunday – the first quarter-final, by comparison, is on Saturday lunchtime – means that supporters will miss the last bullet trains from Nagoya and face a tiring journey back to Osaka by road, but tired faces at work on Monday will still be smiling if Gamba can keep up their ACL momentum. For them, of course, a bigger target even than the world title itself is a dream semi-final pairing with Manchester United.


European interest levels in the Club World Cup are certainly not as high as in the rest of the world, and United do still have a league game away to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday evening (Sunday morning, Japanese time) before they even travel to Yokohama. Nonetheless, Sir Alex Ferguson has repeated his aim to return with the trophy and the full-strength squad he has named will indeed be favourites; a position reinforced by the unlikely identify of the South American representatives, LDU Quito. Ahead of the Copa Libertadores final this summer, it had been expected that Brazilian giants Fluminense – and their former Urawa striker Washington, who has been linked in the last week with a move to Gamba – would be lining up in Japan at the end of the year, but LDU Quito achieved a shock win on penalties to take the first ever continental title for an Ecuadorean side.


The attacking play of LDU Quito and their 23-year-old right winger Luis Bolaños should still not be underestimated, but having lost his partner in crime on the opposite flank, Joffre Guerrón, to Getafe of Spain, they will surely need a performance to match their levels of motivation if they are to have a chance of competing with United. Indeed, a semi-final with Mexican side Pachuca or with Al-Ahly of Egypt – arguably the biggest club side in Africa – will too present a significant hurdle, and it is not out of the question that a team from outside the two traditionally dominant continents could make it to the final this year.


This competition has had a troubled history in its various forms, from the frequent violence and boycotts in the two-legged Intercontinental Cup era of the 1960s and 70s, to the recent doubts over its format since metamorphosing into the Club World Cup. However, with the continued active backing of FIFA it is certain to remain part of the footballing calendar, and the more open and competitive the tournament can become on a genuinely global level, the brighter its future will be. One hopes that exciting football from the likes of Gamba Osaka, Manchester United, and LDU Quito will take this year’s edition to another level for fans around the world.

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Still more questions than answers

3 Dec 2008(Wed)

In any competition but the J League this would be a ridiculous choice of phrase, but as we finally head into the last round of matches this Saturday, the number of remaining candidates for the J1 title is down to just three. Heading into injury time at Kashima Stadium last weekend, the Antlers had failed to break down a Jubilo Iwata side battling desperately to allay their relegation fears, and it looked for a while as if the top five teams would be separated by just three points going into the final day. However, Daiki Iwamasa’s headed goal right at the death allowed Kashima to somehow scramble the win, and provided that Nagoya Grampus do not manage to hammer Oita Trinita by an unlikely 13 goals, a draw with bottom club Consadole Sapporo will now be enough to secure the Antlers’ second successive league title.


Of course, this being the J League, nobody will be tying the ribbons to the trophy just yet, and the experience of Urawa Reds from a near-identical position last year serves to remind us why. Top of the table, Urawa would have been champions with a win on the final day but conspired to lose against already-relegated Yokohama FC, leaving the door open for Kashima to squeeze in and deny the Reds a second straight crown. With two draws and 13 defeats from their last 15 games, Sapporo have a record that is just as desperate as Yokohama FC’s was last year, but the side from Hokkaido has caused real problems both for Tokyo Verdy and for Nagoya in their last two outings and, in what will be their final J1 appearance for a while at least, they will be looking to go out with a similar bang.


However, while Urawa’s capitulation came partly as the result of a punishing schedule brought about by success in the ACL, Kashima’s season will finish on Saturday with not even the Emperor’s Cup to prepare for, and really, they should have more than enough fuel in the tank to see them across the time. Second-placed Nagoya (58 points, goal difference +13) and Kawasaki Frontale (57 pts, GD +21) in third will not have given up all hope of overhauling the Antlers (60 pts, GD +25), but their first priority will be to protect their ACL spots from Oita (55 pts, GD +9) and FC Tokyo (55 pts, GD +6) immediately below them. Even then, Nagoya have a sufficient goal difference advantage going into their trip to Oita to know that their place on the Asian stage is safe as long as they do not lose by more than two goals.


Iwamasa’s goal affected things greatly at the bottom end of the table as well, and with many squeaky bums still remaining here, the relegation battle is now arguably more interesting than those at the top. For 15th-placed Jubilo (37 pts, GD -7), the timing of the strike was yet more of the same bad luck after a similar fate befell them away to Gamba Osaka the previous month. I was at the ‘Clasico’ to see 16th-placed Tokyo Verdy (37 pts, GD -10) visit Yokohama F Marinos, and as is again often the way with clubs facing the drop, Tetsuji Hashiratani’s side played rather well for an hour until they lost the opening goal, after which they never recovered their rhythm and ultimately conceded another. Since JEF United Chiba (35 pts, GD -19) had been defeated in a game that kicked off an hour earlier, both Verdy and Jubilo knew that a single point would be enough to stave off automatic relegation, but their failure to do so has given 17th-placed Chiba a stay of execution at least until their meeting with FC Tokyo this Saturday.


Ironically, since Verdy play Frontale in what was once the Kawasaki derby (until the former moved home to Tokyo), both sides from the capital will be therefore looking for the other to help them towards their respective aims. Jubilo, meanwhile, will host 13th-placed Omiya Ardija (40 pts, GD -10), who along with Albirex Niigata (39 pts, GD -15) a place below them, are now safe from automatic relegation but are not quite out of the woods as far as 16th place and the promotion/relegation play-off is concerned.


Incidentally, though Christmas shopping will mean my first trip to see Gamba at the Big Swan Stadium in Niigata has had to be postponed, I do plan to make a very rare trip to the Nagai Stadium this Saturday lunchtime. With Vegalta Sendai, currently third in J2, losing to Sagan Tosu last Sunday, fourth-placed Cerezo Osaka have managed to close the gap to just one point and keep alive their hopes of a return to J1 via the playoff. My feelings on this issue are mixed as a Gamba supporter, and I shall certainly not be sitting in the home end, but a revived Osaka derby would indisputably be a real highlight in next year’s calendar.

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