YOKOHAMA – J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima picked up from where they left off last year with a 3-1 win over Gamba Osaka in the season curtain-raising Fuji Xerox Super Cup on Saturday.
Sanfrecce beat Gamba in a two-legged playoff to claim the league title last December, and goals from Hisato Sato and Takuma Asano early in the second half at Nissan Stadium continued the champions’ dominance over Emperor’s Cup-holders Gamba.
Takashi Usami gave Gamba hope when he pulled a goal back in the 68th minute, but Sanfrecce substitute Peter Utaka pounced five minutes later to seal the deal and sound an ominous warning to the rest of the J. League ahead of next Saturday’s season opener.
“This shows that all our hard work in camp is still not perfect, but we did show something today,” said Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu. “The first half started well but we couldn’t build on our chances and it became a battle of patience. But the players kept going and eventually that led to goals in the second half that gave us the win.
“Gamba had some new players today and I felt that their combination was still being tested out. But the win was important for us.”
Sanfrecce’s squad has changed little since they claimed the title and finished third at the Club World Cup last season, although Nigerian forward Utaka has arrived to replace Brazilian Douglas, who was named in the J. League Best XI last season but has since left for the United Arab Emirates.
“I can’t ask for a better debut than this,” said Utaka, who has joined on loan from Shimizu S-Pulse and scored four minutes after coming off the bench. “I was confident watching the game from the bench. I knew what I wanted to do and I knew where the space on the pitch was, so I was trying to see if I could get a goal.
“I’m not comparing myself with Douglas. Douglas is Douglas and I’m Peter Utaka. We’re both different kind of players and I’m not putting pressure on myself. My job is to make sure that I give my best every game. If I give 110 percent — if it works it works, if not I try to look forward to the next game.”
Neither side seriously threatened in a sloppy first half best summed up by a fresh-air shot by Gamba midfielder Hiroyuki Abe after he had burst into the Sanfrecce box in the 43rd minute.
But things soon picked up after the interval and Sato showed just how to finish off a chance when he put Sanfrecce ahead in the 51st minute. Tsukasa Shiotani whipped a ball into the Gamba box, and Sato slid in ahead of his marker to guide the ball past goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.
“It was a great assist from Shiotani,” said Sato. “I can only say thanks to him.”
Moriyasu immediately replaced Sato with Asano, and within minutes the substitute had his name on the scoresheet. A handball by Gamba defender Daiki Niwa gave Asano the chance from the penalty spot, and the 21-year-old dispatched a confident strike into the top corner.
Gamba then hauled themselves back into contention with a goal in the 68th minute, as Abe delivered a pinpoint cross that Usami met with a bullet header.
But Utaka put Sanfrecce back in command in the 73rd minute, lashing home a fierce volley that took a deflection and wrong-footed Higashiguchi.
“We let in the first goal and then Niwa told me that the ball for the penalty hit him in the face,” said Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa. “But once we conceded the third goal it became very difficult for us.
“I tried out some new players but it wasn’t really working out. In the first half we weren’t really defending the way we wanted to and the game wasn’t much fun to watch. We got better after halftime but we lost the game, and how we react from now on is what is important.”