Gamba Osaka will be aware there is potential for a thrashing at the hands of Manchester United in Thursday’s Club World Cup semifinal, but the possibility of a shock upset should not be discounted either.
Gamba goes into the match at Yokohama International Stadium as the firm underdog, and with the squad United has brought to Japan, it is not difficult to see why.
Alex Ferguson’s men lie third in the Premier League table with a game in hand over Liverpool and Chelsea, having safely secured their passage to the Champions League knockout phase. And Although Dimitar Berbatov has been ruled out through illness and Wayne Rooney is doubtful, the manager has no shortage of options to replace them.
Gamba’s task, meanwhile, has been complicated by injuries to Hayato Sasaki and Takahiro Futagawa, depriving manager Akira Nishino of two players crucial to Gamba’s brand of attacking play.
Futagawa’s absence in particular will be keenly felt. The attacking midfielder’s slight build rubbishes the notion that only the strong survive in today’s modern game, and his speed of thought and eye for an opening could have unsettled United’s defense were Gamba to take the early initiative.
That responsibility will now rest more heavily than ever on the shoulders of Yasuhito Endo, the inspiration for Gamba’s success and the channel through which everything flows.
If United can shackle Endo it will be game over. But if Nishino’s star man can find the space to expose chinks in the European champion’s armor, the match may take on a far more intriguing complexion.
Gamba’s prospects depend on much more than just Endo, however. It will take a superhuman effort from every man on the field, and striker Lucas must lead the way in his daunting assignment against United center back Nemanja Vidic.
Vidic is from the old school of defending, using brute force and bravery to clear his lines. But if Lucas can hold his own against the Serbian, fellow attacker Ryuji Bando could feed from the scraps he leaves behind.
Left-back Michihiro Yasuda could also be an important creative outlet, but Nishino can forget about attacking if his defense does not take care of business first.
Gamba’s eighth-place J. League finish had much to do with the team’s soft center, and it does not bode well that Satoshi Yamaguchi and Sota Nakazawa now have to face up to one of the world’s most lethal strike forces.
United’s attack is a shape-shifting mass, its players constantly switching position to keep their opponents guessing, but the center backs can rely on help from defensive midfielders Tomokazu Myojin and Hideo Hashimoto in an area where Gamba looks more than equipped to compete.
United midfielder Michael Carrick’s game relies more on poise than power, and if Myojin and Hashimoto can stake out their territory, it could go a long way toward cutting off the supply line.
But winning the game need not be the only way Gamba can triumph.
Urawa Reds never seriously looked like beating Milan at the same stage of last year’s competition, but nevertheless earned worldwide respect for holding their own against one of Europe’s most storied clubs.
It may be that glorious failure is all Gamba can realistically aim for, but if Nishino’s men can pull out all the stops, who is to say they cannot go one better.