KAWASAKI – Gamba Osaka took decisive action in their bid to avoid J.League first-division relegation with a 3-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday.
Gamba, who finished third last season but have since changed manager twice, went into the match at Todoroki Stadium second from bottom in the table despite having scored a league-high 55 goals, and took control when Akihiro Ienaga broke the deadlock in the 21st minute.
Frontale’s Jumpei Kusukami equalized early in the second half before Hiroki Fujiharu restored Gamba’s lead six minutes later, and although Kengo Nakamura leveled the score again in the 72nd minute, Ienaga had the last word, slamming the ball home with a vicious left-foot drive 14 minutes from time.
The win leaves Gamba still in the drop zone on 32 points with five games left to play, but a 1-1 draw between relegation rivals Omiya Ardija and Albirex Niigata elsewhere on Saturday cut the gap on 15th-place Ardija in the final survival spot to one point. Vissel Kobe are two points further clear after drawing 1-1 with Shimizu S-Pulse.
“It was a difficult game, but we all pulled together to get the win,” said Ienaga, who rejoined Gamba this summer after stints in Spain with Real Mallorca and South Korea with Ulsan Hyundai. “I am looking to get on the scoresheet in every game, and today two good chances came my way.
“Today doesn’t change anything with regards to relegation. We still have five games left to play, and we have to keep fighting until the end. We have to stay up. That is the minimum requirement.”
At the other end of the table, second-place Vegalta Sendai pulled level on points with leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima after beating third-place Urawa Reds 3-2. An injury-time goal from Tatsuya Masushima gave Kashiwa Reysol a 2-1 win over Sanfrecce in the day’s late match, although the Hiroshima side enjoys a superior goal difference of three over Vegalta.
Gamba, J.League champions in 2005 and Asian Champions League winners in 2008, would have had realistic ambitions of being among those front-runners at the start of the year, but the campaign has gone badly awry following the offseason departure of long-serving manager Akira Nishino. Successor Jose Carlos Serrao lasted just five games before being replaced by assistant Masanobu Matsunami, but Gamba have remained unable to pull free of the relegation mire.
“We are looking at what the other teams near us are doing, but really it’s all down to us,” said midfielder Yasuhito Endo. “We need to take three points from every game we play, and that doesn’t change. It is difficult, but we just have to deal with what is in front of us as it comes.”
Endo was one of three players present who started Japan’s recent friendly games against France and Brazil, lining up alongside Yasuyuki Konno for Gamba while Nakamura took the captain’s armband for Frontale.
It was a player who has lately faded from the national team picture who opened the scoring, however, Ienaga running onto Takahiro Futagawa’s back-heeled pass to rifle the ball past goalkeeper Rikihiro Sugiyama.
Frontale began the second half with a warning for Gamba as Kusukami shot just wide of the post, and the forward went one better when he brought the home side level in the 58th minute. Nakamura swung in a corner that made it all the way to the back post, and Kusukami was there to nudge it home.
Fujiharu put Gamba back in front within minutes with an angled shot from inside the box, but Frontale again equalized, Nakamura heading home unmarked after Kusukami had reached the byline to whip in a cross.
But Gamba would not be denied. Ienaga found himself in perfect position as the ball broke his way in the 76th minute, and the 26-year-old took it in his stride to fire past Sugiyama for the winner.
“We didn’t start the match well, but we scored the first goal and that calmed us down a bit,” said Matsunami. “If we could have scored a second goal then, we would have been comfortable.
“We couldn’t get into our attacking rhythm in the second half, and we conceded early on. That’s when I could see that my players were really determined to score more.”
Elsewhere in the J.League, Yokohama F. Marinos crushed Jubilo Iwata 4-0, Nagoya Grampus beat Sagan Tosu 3-1, and Kashima Antlers played out a 0-0 draw with Consadole Sapporo.
In the day’s other match, Cerezo Osaka and FC Tokyo drew 1-1.