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.
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.