Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gamba Osaka 2 vs Vegalta Sendai 1 (Emperor's Cup Semifinal) - December 29, 2009

Two days ago saw the semifinals of the Emperor's Cup. Despite it being an official workday, many people have the final week of the year off and so the game in Tokyo was scheduled for a 3pm start. I had taken the day off in lieu and so headed out to National Stadium to check out Vegalta Sendai take on defending champions Gamba Osaka.

The Teams

I've already seen Vegalta Sendai twice in this tournament, including their most recent victory over Kawasaki back on December 12th, so there's no need to expand on that. But it's my first time seeing Gamba Osaka, who finished 3rd in the J League this season. They are the defending champions in the tournament, and also won the AFC Champions League in 2008. Their star is Yasuhito Endo, who is considered one of Japan's best players after taking the Japanese Footballer of the year in 2008 and Asian Footballer of the Year this season. Gamba is one of only 6 teams to have played in the top league in Japan since its inception in 1993.

Given their pedigree, it would seem like Gamba would have no trouble with newly-promoted Vegalta, but their regular keeper was out with the flu, and Vegalta had also taken the scalps of other J1 clubs such as FC Tokyo and Omiya Ardija, so it was by no means a foregone conclusion.

The Seats

Before I get to the game itself, a small digression on the seating. On the JFA's game page, they listed the seating options on a stadium map (check the bottom of the page). I wanted to sit in the center area on the back of the stadium around section 34 or 35; these sections were listed as open on their site. But when I got there, they had blocked off the entire top deck from section 32 to 39 as you can see in the picture below.


Fortunately, the Sendai fans were so many in number that they were forced to open sections 32 and 33, so I moved there, but it was still crowded and uncomfortable for most of the game. And if you got there late, you would have had trouble finding two seats together. So a big thumbs down to the JFA for not opening the seats in advance and for not updating their website.

BTW, If you are seeing a game at National Stadium on a sunny day and don't enjoy being blinded, try to sit in the away section - the sun is low in the sky and shines directly at the home supporters.

Shinjuku skyline

The Game

Many of the latecomers were still looking for seats when Osaka opened the scoring on a spectacular goal. Defender Michihiro Yasuda had the ball deep in the right and crossed into the box. Vegalta keeper Takuto Hayashi jumped to clear it but he could only manage a weak palm on the ball, which spun weakly in the air. Gamba's Brazilian striker Lucas, with his back to the goal, stepped forward and bicycle-kicked the ball with his left foot. Hayashi had no chance and Gamba had the early 1-0 just 4 minutes in.

A corner kick...

...is punched away

The rest of the half was rather uneventful, with most of the play in the midfield. Gamba seemed able to parry any Sendai chance and they really only threatened once, when a header went off the post, shown in the picture below.


The second half was much the same until Sendai finally broke through. Kunimitsu Sekiguchi had the ball in the right corner when he made a brilliant back heel pass to himself to get in the clear. He dribbled into the box and crossed to Takayuki Nakahara, who drove the ball into the top right corner to tie the game.

But the tie was short-lived. It seemed that Gamba had another gear, and they immediately began to pressure the Vegalta defense. After just 8 minutes, they were controlling the ball well when Hideo Hashimoto tried to cross. The ball was deflected by a Sendai defender and rolled to Lucas, who calmly slotted it home behind a surprised Hayashi.

Even with the lead, Gamba continued to pressure, having at least 3 great chances to add to their account. They seemed adept at finding the trailing player who would then drive a shot wide or high. Vegalta never really came close again and at the full-time whistle, Osaka had earned their place in the final.

Hayashi leaps to grab a cross

This game wasn't that exciting; certainly Gamba showed their class, limiting Sendai to just 6 shots while managing 13 themselves. I was a bit sad to see Sendai fall here as I always enjoy seeing underdogs succeed. But they will certainly provide quality opposition in J1 next season.

This video shows all the goals for those who are interested.

The Emperor's Cup final will be played on New Years Day in National Stadium. Gamba will take on Nagoya Grampus, who won in penalties over Shimizu S Pulse. I'm not going to that game as I've seen both teams and am not sure about the ticket situation.

Next up

That's it for 2009! January 2010 promises more sports including an American football game in Tokyo, the final week of Top League rugby, and then the trip to the south for the Leafs road trip. Stay tuned for all the news and have a Happy New Year everyone!

Sean

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