When Gamba Osaka takes to the field for the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, fatigue could prove to be just as deadly an opponent as Kashiwa Reysol.
This past year has been an eventful one for Gamba, but it has also taken a mental and physical toll on a team that began its season with the Pan-Pacific Championship in Honolulu back in February.
Since then Akira Nishino’s men have played a full J. League season, competed in the latter stages of the Nabisco Cup, won the Asian Champions League and finished third at the Club World Cup in December.
Gamba then resumed its Emperor’s Cup campaign on Christmas Day, beating Nagoya Grampus before withstanding a barrage from Yokohama F. Marinos in Monday’s semifinal to snatch a late winner and set up a showdown with Reysol.
Of course greater success brings greater demands, and Nishino will not be complaining that Gamba has the chance to add to the club’s silverware collection at National Stadium.
Grampus, on the other hand, might. Given that the Club World Cup took center stage from Dec. 11-21, Gamba’s involvement in the Emperor’s Cup complicated the fixture list and affected its opponent.
The Osaka side’s commitments meant the match had to be played five days later than the other quarterfinals, and although this may not seem like much of an inconvenience, it must be remembered that the J. League finished on Dec. 6.
That left Grampus, coming off the back of a hard season chasing the league title, kicking its heels for 19 days before one — ultimately last — cup fixture.
Having to wait 19 days to play a final is one thing, but for Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic to keep his players — some of whom had already struck deals to play for new clubs next season — motivated for a quarterfinal must have been a challenge indeed.
Such problems are symptomatic of the Emperor’s Cup’s place in the current soccer calendar, but that is not Gamba’s concern right now.
A much more pressing demand is how to cope with the expected loss of injured playmaker Yasuhito Endo, and how to find a way past Kashiwa goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno.
Sugeno is a fine shot-stopper who has had an impressive season, and the former Yokohama FC man could even be entitled to feel disappointed at having missed out on a place in the J. League team of the season.
Few other Reysol players can lay such a claim, but that does not mean Gamba can afford to take its opponent lightly.
Brazilian striker Franca has had a disappointing year, but showed in the semifinal win over FC Tokyo that he has a knack for weighing in with goals when it counts. So too Tadanari Lee, whose brief spurt of form after the summer break preceded a poor showing at the Beijing Olympics, but whose goal on Monday booked Kashiwa its place in the final.
The fact that both players came off the bench to change the game with fresh legs will come as a sobering thought for Gamba’s walking wounded.
But if Nishino can squeeze one final effort from his players, the opportunity is there for Gamba to finish an extraordinary season with another taste of glory.