SAITAMA – Urawa Reds will be looking to knock a monkey off their back and shoot down holders Gamba Osaka in the latest high-stakes clash between the J. League titans in the Emperor’s Cup final on Friday, the last day of the Japanese season.
Reds allowed the J. League title to slip from their grasp with a devastating defeat to eventual champions Gamba late last season, and there was a sense of deja vu for Mihailo Petrovic’s men in this year’s Championship semifinal at the end of November.
Late goals from Hiroki Fujiharu and Brazilian striker Patric sent Gamba into the Championship final with a 3-1 extra-time win at Saitama, with Fujiharu’s strike coming on a counterattack just seconds after Gamba defender Daiki Niwa nearly scored a freak own goal at the other end.
Gamba also beat Urawa 2-0 in the season curtain-raiser, the Fuji Xerox Super Cup. The two each won at home in the league, Reds 1-0 and Gamba 2-1.
“We have won and lost against Gamba over the past couple of seasons but we have been beaten in the games that really matter,” Petrovic told Kyodo News at Reds’ training ground on Thursday.
“But in my mind, looking back on all the times we played them, we didn’t play any worse than Gamba did, even in the games that we lost. This is the final now and the players are more than motivated. We have the extra incentive of putting one over on them but we don’t want to let that burn us out.
“I want my players to play the way they did in the Championship semifinal. I was satisfied with our overall performance in that game and the only thing I can ask for tomorrow is that we are more clinical in front of goal.”
“Losing to Gamba in the semifinal was painful for our fans and the Urawa family. Winning the Emperor’s Cup would ease that pain and be the perfect tonic.”
Reds have been in good recent form and kept cleansheets in their last two Emperor’s Cup games, a 3-0 whipping of Vissel Kobe on Saturday and a 1-0 extra-time semifinal win against Kashiwa Reysol.
Urawa defender Tomoaki Makino has called for more of the same.
“Just because it’s the final it doesn’t mean we need to do anything different. We just need to keep playing the way we have all season,” he said.
“We are playing well in both attack and defense, and we’re confident. We lost last year to Gamba with the title on the line and then in the Xerox and the Championship semis this season. Hopefully we can take the frustrations of those three defeats out on them tomorrow.”
Reds are almost certain to be without influential midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi, who picked up a left-knee injury late in the first half against Reysol and was limited to light jogging on the side in Thursday’s session.
The Emperor’s Cup also represents the last shot at a piece of silverware for Gamba, who won a domestic treble last season but have had to settle for runners-up in the league and the Nabisco Cup. Kenta Hasegawa’s men also reached the last four of the Asian Champions League.
“This match will be the sum total of our season,” Hasegawa said. “We want to use the experience we’ve had in the final game of the campaign.”
Gamba have been boosted by the resurgence of star striker Takashi Usami, who ended a 15-match goal drought in all competitions with a brace in a 3-1 quarterfinal win on Saturday against Sagan Tosu, before repeating the feat in the 3-0 semifinal win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Tuesday.
“My goals helping the team win have given me confidence,” Usami said after Gamba went through Thursday’s one-hour training session behind closed doors.
Said Yasuyuki Konno, “I’m sure (Reds) are fired up but we are up for it, too. We lost all the finals we have been in this season and we will be putting everything out there.”