SUITA, Osaka Pref. – Japan defender Akira Kaji struck a super second-half equalizer as defending champions Gamba Osaka came from behind to draw 1-1 with Urawa Reds on the opening day of the J. League season on Saturday.
Beaten by Urawa 3-1 in last week’s Xerox Super Cup, Gamba fell behind to an early goal from Washington but Kaji gave his side a deserved share of the spoils by opening his Gamba account in the 68th minute at Expo Stadium.
“I thought we had more of the ball after going behind and it was a bit frustrating at times today,” said Kaji. “But I knew if we continued pushing a goal would come.”
“I really wanted to do my best for the team and I’m pleased to have scored and helped us get a result,” added the 26-year-old, who put in an energetic display despite playing in Japan’s 2-2 draw with Bosnia in a World Cup warm-up in Germany in midweek.
Urawa made a dream start as Nobuhisa Yamada set up Washington for his second goal in as many games, whipping over a pinpoint cross for the former Brazil striker to power an unstoppable header past Yosuke Fujigaya after three minutes.
Gamba, whose league-leading scorer in 2005 Araujo and Japan striker Masashi Oguro both left after the end of last season, looked bereft of ideas going forward and Magno Alves was largely anonymous in the first half.
Fernandinho had the home side’s only real chance of the first period but his ambitious chip in the 20th minute failed to trouble Ryota Tsuzuki and sailed over the bar.
Urawa should have doubled their lead in the 57th minute but Marcus Tulio Tanaka was denied by an excellent block from Fujigaya.
Tsuzuki was given his first real test at the other end and was equal to Magno Alves’ low drive. But the former Gamba custodian could do little about Kaji’s equalizer.
The former FC Tokyo man collected a pass from Takahiro Futagawa on his chest and cut inside Alessandro Santos before burying the ball past Tsuzuki.
Gamba started to look the more dangerous of the two sides but Urawa should have gained the upper hand when Makoto Hasebe contrived the blast a shot over with the goal at his mercy after Keita Suzuki’s shot had come off the foot of the post.
Magno Alves, a preseason signing from Oita Trinita, responded with a shot that was deflected off the crossbar at the other end but Gamba were unable to find a winner.
Gamba captured their first J. League title in dramatic fashion last season, beating Kawasaki Frontale on the final day of the season to finish one point ahead of four teams, including Urawa.
Gamba and Urawa, who finished runnersup and also won the Emperor’s Cup last term, are both tipped as championship contenders this year, with Kashima Antlers and Yokohama F Marinos also regarded as title challengers.
Yokohama host promoted Kyoto Purple Sanga while Kashima visit Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the rest of the first round of matches to be played on Sunday.
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