With the upcoming crucial games against Gamba Osaka for Melbourne Victory in the Asian Champions League I decided to find out more about our opposition. So thanks to Mike Tuckerman, an Australian who lives in Japan and a mad Shimizu S-Pulse fan, who has provided some insight into Gamba Osaka. His blog is also worth checking out if you are a fan of the J-League as well.
1. How would you describe Gamba Osaka's style of play? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
For the past few years Gamba have been renowned as one of the most attacking sides in Japanese football. Certainly Akira Nishino is a coach who prefers free-flowing, attractive football and he has fielded a 4-3-3 formation for Gamba's last couple of league games. The problem for the Osakans is confidence. That attacking style hasn't yielded the expected results, particularly over the past two seasons. Now they seem to be at the crossroads of how they want to play, and I think they'll be very wary of the pace of Melbourne Victory.
One of Gamba's most obvious strengths is their set pieces. Yasuhito Endo is probably one of the best set piece takers in Asia, and he's a constant menace over any kind of dead ball. He's also an incisive passer of the ball, and while he is prone to go missing in games, I think the way he plays will have an important bearing on the outcome of the two matches.
As for weaknesses, Gamba have plenty at the moment. In particular their defence looks weak, and the question of where to play teenager Michihiro Yasuda is a thorny one. He's often exposed in a back four, but doesn't quite seem to have the nous to operate effectively in midfield. Confidence is always a key factor for Japanese clubs at the moment, and while Gamba have won their past three league matches in a row, they've all been scrappy wins against sides struggling with their own problems at the moment.
2. Who are the key players that Melbourne Victory should be wary of?
The key players are Yasuhito Endo and Bare.
Everything goes through Endo, and closing him down in midfield will prove key to Melbourne's chances of winning.
As for Bare, he's a predatory goal-poacher. He's not an especially skillful player, but he has the brilliant knack of always seeming to be in the right place at the right time to score crucial goals.
I'd have also suggested that former Japan international Ryuji Bando has a point to prove - both to Gamba coach Nishino and to Japan coach Takashi Okada, but Bando is injured and looks like he'll play no part in Melbourne.
3. Will there be a significant travelling contigent from Osaka?
Since there is rarely a significant travelling contingent from Osaka for J. League games, I doubt it. Osaka is a baseball town, and unlike the Kanto plain (the region surrounding Tokyo where most of the J. League teams are based) and Shizuoka (the hotbed of Japanese football), the citizens of Kansai (where Osaka is the main city) haven't quite taken to football as they have elsewhere in the country. Gamba's compact Expo '70 Stadium is generally packed for J. League fixtures, but that's just because they've been relatively successful over the past few seasons. I suspect that if cross-town rivals Cerezo Osaka had been just as successful, then most football fans in Osaka would identify themselves as Cerezo fans.
4. How are Gamba Osaka faring in the J-League in the early stages of the season?
They've flattered to deceive. As I said, they've just won three fixtures in a row, but they were arguably out-played by Shimizu S-Pulse last weekend. The early rounds of the J. League are generally fairly deceptive, and it's not until the season breaks for the summer that one has a general idea of who might challenge for title honours (although at the break last season Kashima Antlers were in fourth, some eleven points behind league leaders Gamba). I think Gamba will be particularly concerned by this trip to Melbourne, especially as it's being talked up in the Japanese press a little bit.
5. There are reports that Gamba Osaka must play three J-League games in six days before flying to Melbourne. Do you think this will have any significant impact?
It's true that Gamba have just played three fixtures in six days. The AFC Champions League is unlikely to come into consideration when the J. League draws up the fixture list, particularly with the twin concerns of World Cup qualification and the Beijing Olympics taking precedence. The bad news for Melbourne fans is that Gamba won all three of those matches! However I certainly think it will have a significant impact, particularly as the toughest of those games was the last one against Shimizu S-Pulse. With the exception of the injured Ryuji Bando, they fielded a full strength starting eleven in that game, and I think several of the Gamba players will be fatigued by the time they hit the tarmac in Melbourne.
6. What do you think the result will be?
I have no idea! Both sides are nervous about each other's capabilities, and I think it will be a cagey affair in Melbourne. I think an individual error will settle it.