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May 2011

Derby day: A history of all-Japanese clashes in the ACL

23 May 2011(Mon)

Gamba Osaka maintained their 100% home record in all competitions on Saturday evening with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Albirex Niigata. Cerezo Osaka, meanwhile, are still looking for their first domestic win of 2011 after Friday’s 3-3 thriller with Kawasaki Frontale made it five draws on the spin since losing at Banpaku on opening day. Ahead of the derby rematch in the first knockout round of the AFC Champions League on Tuesday, Football Japan revisits three previous all-Japanese ties on the Asian stage – starting with the biggest to date.

 

 

Gamba Osaka 1-1 Urawa Reds; Urawa Reds 1-3 Gamba Osaka (Gamba Osaka win 4-2 on aggregate)

AFC Champions League semi-final, 8 and 22 October 2008

 

With the triumphant revival of Kashima Antlers under Oswaldo de Oliveira and the emergence of several other contenders, it is easy to forget that less than three years ago, Gamba Osaka versus Urawa Reds was the national derby. Both had taken advantage of a simultaneous decline amongst the old guard – Kashima, Jubilo Iwata, Yokohama F Marinos – to finally break through in the latter half of 2004; Urawa winning the final J. League stage championship, with Gamba finishing third. The Osaka club then pipped the Reds by a point to clinch the newly-restructured single season title in 2005, but lost 3-2 in Saitama on the final day 12 months later to concede their crown to Guido Buchwald’s men. A late winner from Yuichiro Nagai made it a double when the clubs met again in the final of the Emperor’s Cup four weeks later, on New Year’s Day 2007.

 

4-0 (Super Cup) and 5-2 (Nabisco Cup) drubbings handed bragging rights – emphatically, but briefly – back to Gamba, before a crucial win at Banpaku in August allowed Urawa to seize initiative in the league. They blew it, famously, allowing Kashima to overturn a 10-point deficit over the final five matches of the season, but were excused by the toils endured en route to an even greater achievement. Now led by Buchwald’s compatriot, Holger Osieck, the Reds overcame Iranian club Sepahan 3-1 on aggregate to win the 2007 AFC Champions League and earn a glamour date with AC Milan in the FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama that December (Milan won 1-0).

 

By 2008, the Gamba-Reds rivalry had an edge. Gamba fans had mischievously displayed banners in support of Sepahan before that ACL final, but when Urawa’s players angrily objected to their opponents’ celebrations after winning 3-2 at the Saitama Stadium in May, scenes in the stands took an altogether uglier turn. Supporters clashed violently, with missiles thrown from both sides, and one Gamba ultra breaking his leg after falling from the stand onto the concrete below in the melee. Seeking to confront the instigators of the conflict, Urawa fans formed a human barricade around the away fans’ exit for some three hours after full time until an armistice of sorts was reached. Japanese football was not prepared for this.

 

It was under the auspices of the AFC that the clubs met for the first time post-Saitamagate in what, depending on your perspective, was either a dream or a nightmare pairing in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Gamba entered the October encounters with their tails between their legs somewhat, having received the bulk of the blame for the off-pitch incidents in May before going ten competitive games without a win when star striker Baré decided to suddenly up sticks to Al-Ahli of Dubai mid-season. Supporters remarked that they would rather lose to Al-Karamah of Syria in the last eight than face inevitable elimination at the hands of them a stage later. Those of a Reds persuasion would gleefully remind us that Gamba were only there in the first place because of Urawa’s success – a bizarre combination of technicalities allowing the Osaka club into the 2008 ACL by virtue of losing that Emperor’s Cup final on the first day of 2007.

 

Barring a contextual atmosphere that was more intense than a jamboree of campers – happy or otherwise – the first leg at Banpaku was rather a disappointment. Chronically short of confidence, Gamba were content to sit back and absorb the visitors’ pressure; a plan that only sort of worked, as Urawa took the lead through Hajime Hosogai on 22 minutes. Baré’s replacement, Roni, was so useless that Akira Nishino preferred to introduce left-back Mineiro – himself so useless that he was only afforded 31 minutes of league action all season – as an emergency striker. But the home side tentatively began to move forwards as the second half progressed, and were rewarded for their perseverance with a late penalty converted by Yasuhito Endo.

 

Watching in the stands that evening, tactical sensei Jonathan Wilson had precious little to write home about and remains, he says, unconvinced of Endo’s qualities to this day. It was only unfortunate that Wilson’s trip to Japan hadn’t come two weeks later. Some 50,000 Reds fans decked their stadium in red, white, and black in celebration of their status as clear favourites not only for the tie, but the entire competition. Nishino was able to recall talisman Lucas to the starting eleven, though chose to pair him with fellow Brazilian Roni for reasons that could only have been linguistic. Urawa had the better of a gripping first half, and led at the break through Naohiro Takahara.

 

Off went Roni, and on came winger Hayato Sasaki as Gamba switched to a 4-5-1 designed to seize midfield initiative and allow Endo the space and freedom to shine. Seize and shine they did. Six minutes after the restart, Sasaki won a corner on the Gamba right, which Endo arrowed onto the head of captain Satoshi Yamaguchi to level the scores. Twenty minutes later, another Endo corner found Tomokazu Myojin at the near post, who somehow managed – not necessarily deliberately – to hook the ball over Norihiro Yamagishi and suddenly grasp the massive advantage of a lead on both aggregate and away goals. Urawa tried to hit back with the introduction of a third striker, Tatsuya Tanaka, but by now the visitors were rampant and, as if to symbolise the confidence that had returned to their ranks for the first time in three – perhaps five – months, a sweeping counter attack culminated in Endo rubberstamping a 3-1 win.

 

In retrospect, this semi-final represented a high water mark for the so-called national derby. The Reds have not come close to silverware since, slipping to finishes of seventh, sixth, and tenth in the past three J. League seasons. Gamba, of course, went on to thrash Adelaide United 5-0 over two legs to be crowned champions of Asia, before putting Japanese club football on the map with a thrilling 5-3 loss to Manchester United in the Club World Cup. 2011 is the fourth consecutive season in which they have competed in (and reached the knockout stages of) the ACL.

 

 

And, after a thousand words on just one tie, here are a couple of others much more briefly...

 

Gamba Osaka 2-3 Kawasaki Frontale

AFC Champions League round of 16, 24 June 2009

 

With the expansion of the AFC Champions League and the participation of as many as four clubs from the same country, the chances of an all-Japanese pairing were greatly enhanced from 2009, and indeed two were delivered in as many rounds. Gamba cruised through the group stage with five straight wins, the only blot on their record being a 2-1 home loss to FC Seoul – notable for the debut goal of a 17-year-old called Takashi Usami – once top spot had already been secured. Kawasaki Frontale, meanwhile, had little difficulty navigating their way through Group H, but a surprise home loss – at least, it was then – to eventual champions Pohang Steelers on the final matchday meant an away trip to Osaka for the newly-introduced round of 16.

 

The gimmick of this new, pre-quarter-final knockout stage was that it would be played over one leg, with group winners enjoying the theoretical advantage of playing at home. Only, in five of the eight ties that year, the seedings were overturned. Gamba began the game well and took the lead through Leandro, a more predatory successor to Baré, after 26 minutes. Kengo Nakamura was allowed to equalise seven minutes later but Leandro struck again almost immediately, and until the final quarter of an hour, Nishino’s men looked like progressing with something to spare.

 

Then, disaster. Renatinho cut inside Michihiro Yasuda to score a fine equaliser, before Masaru Kurotsu collected a Nakamura pass to put Frontale in front with only six minutes remaining. Gamba had no response. The Kawasaki side, fellow disciples of the school of you-score-two-we’ll-score-three, had given the defending Asian champions a bitter taste of their own medicine. Leandro, incidentally, proved his credentials as the new Baré by buggering off to Al-Sadd of Qatar soon afterwards.

 

 

Kawasaki Frontale 2-1 Nagoya Grampus; Nagoya Grampus 3-1 Kawasaki Frontale (Nagoya Grampus win 4-3 on aggregate)

AFC Champions League quarter-final, 23 and 30 September 2009

 

Kawasaki’s reward for beating Gamba was another all-Japanese clash – this time over two legs – against Nagoya Grampus, with whom they had battled for the 2008 J. League title until Kashima eventually proved too strong for both. Nevertheless, this was a test of two new pretenders eager to secure a long-term seat at the post-Urawa high table, and one that pitted together two of the new era’s most important managers – Takashi Sekizuka and Dragan Stojković.

 

Signed from Karlsruhe in mid-season as a replacement for Davi, who had done a Baré/Leandro, Australian international Joshua Kennedy gave Grampus a crucial early advantage in the first leg ‘away’ at the National Stadium in Tokyo, but Frontale once again displayed their fighting spirit to win 2-1 with goals in quick succession from Nakamura and Juninho. Yoshizumi Ogawa – with a real humdinger – and Maya Yoshida overturned the deficit again in the first 35 minutes of the second match in Nagoya, but an equaliser (on aggregate and away goals) by Chong Tese soon afterwards set the stage for 50 minutes of nail-biting tension.

 

Chances were missed by both sides, but with the tie appearing set for extra time, the drama was concluded by the man who had started it off. Hayuma Tanaka’s cross found Magnum at the far post, but while Eiji Kawashima just about managed to prevent the ball from crossing the line as he himself fell behind it, the custodian was helpless to stop Kennedy firing home from two yards and conclusively announcing himself to the Grampus faithful.

 

Frontale agonisingly went on to lose in the final of the Nabisco Cup and finish second in the league – thereby collecting their fifth set of runners-up medals in four seasons – with Sekizuka departing at the end of the year. They remain trophyless to date. Grampus, meanwhile, were thrashed 8-3 on aggregate by Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia in the last four as a gruelling campaign caught up with them, but free of ACL pressures, won their first ever J. League title by a clear 10 points in 2010.

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Asian eyes on Osaka

20 May 2011(Fri)

When the draw for the 2011 AFC Champions League (ACL) was made in Kuala Lumpur on 7 December last year – just three days after the final J. League standings were decided and still almost four weeks before Kashima Antlers secured their place with victory in the Emperor’s Cup – it immediately caught this column’s attention that there was a very real prospect of an Osaka derby in the first knockout round. With 2008 Asian champions Gamba Osaka sealing top spot in Group E with a 2-0 victory over Tianjin Teda last Wednesday, and neighbours Cerezo Osaka progressing to the last 16 in their first ever continental campaign as runners-up in Group G, the script has indeed been followed to the letter. But while next Tuesday’s single-legged, winner-takes-all encounter at Banpaku represents the first time that two clubs from the same Japanese city have ever met in international competition, local reaction has been somewhat mixed.

 

On the surface there has been excitement, albeit somewhat overshadowed in a more general sporting context by the interleague baseball that gave rise to another rare ‘Osaka derby’ this week between Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes. (It is curious that Japanese baseball is now adopting this football terminology to describe its local contests, but as luck would have it, the ACL derby happily coincides with a night off at the ballparks.) Fans of the clubs concerned seem unsure how to think. Prominent Gamba supporters who insisted earlier this year that their rivals’ presence in Asia is an aberration that should be corrected at the first hurdle now have to begrudgingly accept the forthcoming encounter.

 

Others, by contrast, openly admit to having cheered a Cerezo win in the final group match against Shandong Luneng – even if 4-0 may have been a tad excessive. Those choosing to wear pink on a more regular basis, meanwhile, have largely been delighted with their heroes’ Asian adventure thus far, but one rather pessimistically told me he fully expects “Gamba to put us out of our misery” next week.

 

The noble old maxim that supporter rivalries should be set aside for the good of the national game in continental club competition has, of course, been complicated into near extinction by the presence of as many as four teams from the same country in what nominally remains a Champions League. Direct encounters made possible as a result carry an inevitable emotional trade-off. Victories over genuine historical rivals bring greater joy, one-upmanship, and – perhaps above all – relief. But the latter emotion stems from an uncomfortably inescapable fear of losing to them that rarely exists with overseas opposition, for which distance can permit respect or, at least, indifference. The upshot of all this is that the atmosphere and intensity of the tie should be significantly enhanced, as was witnessed in the European affairs between Manchester United and Chelsea or (for better or for worse) Barcelona and Real Madrid earlier this spring.

 

Gamba defender Satoshi Yamaguchi, who lifted the ACL trophy as captain three years ago, offered me his thoughts on the last 16 derby shortly after helping his side beat Tianjin last week. “The derby is certainly special. Cerezo are the one team we really, absolutely do not want to lose to, especially at home in Asian competition. In a sense it does feel a bit of a waste that we have to play a Japanese team so early on, though. I would have liked to play them in the latter stages instead.” Yamaguchi’s second point has been echoed by many others, including fans and journalists. It is worth pointing out, though, that with Korean sides taking all four East Asian places in last season’s quarter-finals, the winners of the Osaka derby will be the first Japanese representatives to reach the last eight since Nagoya Grampus were semi-finalists in 2009.

 

Central midfielder Masaki Chugo expressed similar sentiments upon emerging from Cerezo changing room. “A derby in the ACL!” smiled the former Kashima Antlers volante. “We are used to facing Gamba in the J. League or in any of the other domestic competitions, but if we have to play them in the Champions League as well it is a game we simply have to win. Unfortunately we won’t be at home, but having lost to them on the opening day of the J. League season, we will look forward to the chance for a rematch so soon instead of having to wait until summer.”

 

The opening day game in March to which Chugo refers ended in a 2-1 victory for Gamba, the home side then as they will be on Tuesday, with Adriano and Shu Kurata both netting debut goals after swapping clubs in close season. This result took the blue and black half of Osaka’s record to nine wins and one draw in ten league derby matches since Cerezo last tasted glory back in July 2003 – a dominant run that includes a 7-1 thrashing in 2004 and even a 6-1 scoreline away at Nagai in 2006.

 

However, fans in the south of the city can take heart from the fact that on the two occasions over this period that the pair have been drawn together in one-off knockout ties, it was they who were victorious. Yuji Tsukada’s Cerezo fought back from two down in 39 minutes to prevail 3-2 after extra time in the fourth round of the 2003 Emperor’s Cup (played, strangely, some 200 miles from Osaka in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku). Two years later, Shinji Kobayashi masterminded a comfortable 3-1 win in the quarter-final of the same competition – just three weeks after Gamba had pipped their neighbours to the J. League crown.

 

Indeed, while Cerezo may to some extent be able to see continental progression as an unexpected bonus, Gamba are burdened both by expectation and by previous form at this stage of the tournament. Their reign as kings of Asia came to an abrupt end with a 3-2 home loss to Kawasaki Frontale in 2009 – the first season to feature a single-legged round of 16 – before eventual champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma cast Akira Nishino’s men aside with a 3-0 drubbing 12 months ago.

 

Such disappointments have not been easily forgotten. Yamaguchi acknowledges, “We have been poor in the past when it’s winner-takes-all. This year we have been focusing on getting beyond this stage. Of course, we still had to get through the group, but we want to overcome the next hurdle – win one more match and make it to the home-and-away ties. That desire remains very strong.”

 

His regular partner in central defence, Sota Nakazawa, is clear about where the players’ priorities should lie. “Personally, I am absolutely determined to put the painful memories of the last two seasons behind us, regardless of the opponent. But of course, an Osaka derby means the fans will be all the more up for it, and I hope we can rise to that occasion as well. Weak under pressure? I think that has certainly been the case. Our defeats over the last two years have been extremely painful for the players – even more so than for the supporters.”

 

Unquestionably, the agony will be magnified several times over for whichever set of players and fans must suffer defeat in the 34th Osaka derby, but irrespective of the result, Tuesday’s match should provide a number of useful indicators in terms of matters off the pitch. Though neither Gamba nor Cerezo managed to attract five figures for their crucial final group fixtures last week, local interest has at least reached the point where a 22,000 sellout for the derby appears guaranteed. It now remains to be seen both how imaginatively the winners will be allowed to celebrate, and how successfully this game can capture the imagination in the rest of the city and country as well. Traditionally, baseball has cast a greater shadow over the world game in Kansai than anywhere else, while much of Japan’s footballing fraternity have often been prone to eschew the ACL in favour of domestic matters. Anywhere else, this would be the undisputed highlight of the sporting week; one only hopes that the Tokyo-centric media will let it be so.

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No place like home for Sino-Japanese rivalry

13 May 2011(Fri)

Despite trailing in the wake of the South Korean clubs last year, the J. League has now repeated its 2009 feat of having all four representatives safely through to the knockout stages of this season’s AFC Champions League. With Nagoya Grampus and Kashima Antlers both securing their progression in the penultimate round of group fixtures, Cerezo Osaka beat Shandong Luneng 4-0 on Tuesday to reach the last 16 at the first attempt. City rivals Gamba leapfrogged already-qualified Tianjin Teda to top Group E with a 2-0 victory 24 hours later, eliminating K-League side Jeju United in the process. Indeed, the only blot on the Japanese copybook this week was a 3-1 defeat for Grampus at Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates; Dragan Stojković having fielded a reserve line-up to spare his star names the gruelling journey, but now facing a second round tie away to Suwon Bluewings after dropping to second in Group F.

 

The two results in Osaka enabled the J. League quartet to complete a clean sweep of four home victories over Chinese opposition, scoring a total of nine goals in the process without conceding a single one between them. This, however, tells only half the story. In total contrast to the apparent domination they enjoy on familiar territory, a 1-1 draw for Kashima away to Group H whipping boys Shanghai Shenhua was the only occasion on which any of the Japanese teams emerged with as much as a point from their respective visits to China. The Cerezo result was a case in point – watching the likes of Yusuke Maruhashi, Rui Komatsu, and Hiroshi Kiyotake in particular repeatedly wreak havoc down the Shandong right at Nagai, it was hard to fathom how Levir Culpi’s side could possibly have lost 2-0 to the same opponents just two months ago.

 

Ever-present throughout Cerezo’s debut ACL campaign thus far, former Kashima midfielder Masaki Chugo admitted to me after Tuesday’s game that even by Asian standards, home advantage is especially significant whenever another chapter of Sino-Japanese rivalry is written. “It makes a big difference,” acknowledged the 28-year-old. “When we went to China, there was a strong sense that we were very much the away team, and as a result the first 45 minutes did not go well for us. Although we did play much better in the second half of that away game, we were completely outplayed throughout the opening period. But here at home, I felt that our opponents weren’t all that strong at all, or at least not very strong on their travels. At home they will definitely play to their full potential, but I thought Shandong were rather poor away.”

 

If Takashi Inui’s breakaway goal to put the Osaka club three up after 73 minutes had removed any lingering doubt, a red card for Cui Peng after a nasty challenge on Kim Bo-Kyung proved in all too literal fashion that the Chinese players were unwilling to go down without a fight. Tianjin, meanwhile, were forced to put an outfield player in goal for Takashi Usami’s stoppage time penalty after starting ‘keeper Yang Qipeng was dismissed with no available substitutes remaining. Gamba had previously endured a hostile reception both on and off the pitch upon their visit to the TEDA Football Stadium four days after the Tohoku earthquake, while Melbourne Victory were also left cursing their sister city club’s antics en route to becoming the sole Super League representatives in the last 16.

 

Defensive stalwart Satoshi Yamaguchi, an ACL champion in 2008 and now into his eleventh season with Gamba, suggests that such physicality has become par for the course. “There is definitely a certain difficulty against Chinese opposition,” said Yamaguchi on Wednesday. “Even today, we saw some of the kind of play that teams from China are known for. But things became much easier for us once we took the lead because we had withstood that side of their game. The fact we were able to do so had a direct effect on the outcome. We had been very disappointed to lose in China, so were extremely glad to put things right today.”

 

Longer distances, few budget airlines, and greater difficulties in securing holiday from work mean that Asian fans travel to continental away matches in far smaller numbers than has become the norm in Europe. The few Gamba supporters to make it to Tianjin or to Henan Construction last year spoke of fiery atmospheres unlike any they had ever experienced; a constant reminder that they were a very long way from home. It is safe to say that Japanese clubs rarely enjoy quite the same degree of home advantage, unless – both ironically and understandably – playing responsibilities dictate due deference to the paying public. “I wouldn’t say we suffer a handicap as such,” said Maruhashi on Tuesday. “The Cerezo supporters cheered us on well tonight.” Sota Nakazawa of Gamba also initially denied that the atmosphere in the stands had been a factor behind the poor away record in China, before pausing to consider and smiling, “Well, maybe just a little!”

 

Having experienced the highs and lows of four previous ACL campaigns, Yamaguchi is more candid and constructive. “The atmosphere in Chinese stadiums has a major impact, including on the referees. We were not the only team to lose in such circumstances – I think every away team experiences the same difficulties. Whether or not Japanese teams are at a disadvantage in that sense, you just have to deal with it and respond to the situation. You have to go and win in these places. We will need to get that little bit stronger, since if you make it past the group stage and last 16, that’s where the really strong teams will appear.”

 

On this latter point at least, Nakazawa is willing to echo the sentiments of his partner and sempai in central defence. “Gamba have certainly been weak under pressure in the past. We need to be able to win difficult away matches in China and so on. If we cannot get past this hurdle then I don’t think we will be able to go much further in the competition. After all, there is a chance we might get drawn against Tianjin again if we make it through the last 16.”

 

 

Deliciously, Gamba and Cerezo will be rewarded for their wins in midweek with an Osaka derby at Banpaku in the next round of the ACL on 24 May. Read the thoughts of Chugo, Nakazawa, and Yamaguchi in a full preview next week.

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